Editorial: Des Moines City Council should be embarrassed by its insulting move to silence Indira Sheumaker

·4 min read

Frank Cownie, Connie Boesen, Joe Gatto, Josh Mandelbaum, Carl Voss and Linda Westergaard need thicker skin. And some more patience.

That's the simplest way to make sense of rule changes the Des Moines City Council adopted in part Monday. After the plans were publicized over the weekend, the council decided Monday night against several provisions, though it's hard to grant much credit for walking back pieces of a trial balloon.

Two meetings into the tenure of Councilwoman Indira Sheumaker, her six colleagues agreed that allowing her to suggest council actions independently was just too much.

The change, on top of other restrictions passed in 2020, makes the council function more like a kindergarten and less like a deliberative body of elected adults for Iowa’s largest city.

More: Proposed Des Moines City Council rules would limit council member actions, public requests

It’s insulting to the public at large, but especially to her constituents, who could have returned to office a status-quo incumbent but chose Sheumaker, aware that she intended to challenge conventional decisions on the principle that the city ignores the needs of its less-influential residents and sanctions violence against some of them. Sheumaker represents the views of a substantial bloc of city residents, and taking steps to limit the council's discussion of those views is neither fair nor healthy for the city's future.

Sure, elected officials have tools for policing “loose cannons” who treat their office like a soapbox. Procedural rules are one of them. The problem is that Sheumaker has not demonstrated she's a loose cannon, or even disruptive. She has delivered well-informed, respectful comments that often place routine city practices under scrutiny. On Monday morning, council members and the city manager icily challenged her accusation that Des Moines police tactics contributed to a March 2021 drowning but let pass Gatto's easily disproved remark that "if you don't break the law, you don't get arrested."

Cownie and Boesen told Register reporter Melody Mercado that changes such as requiring a second before motions are considered have been discussed for years and note that the new rules aren't unique. Taking them at their word, it's still hard to conclude that they weren't spurred to action by a special meeting Jan. 14, requested by Sheumaker, to discuss city provisions to keep residents without shelter safe during dangerous cold.

More: City of Des Moines OKs weather amnesty for encroachment camps, does not create warming facility

That brief meeting ended, after no substantive action, with crosstalk as Cownie declined to recognize Sheumaker for her motion to open a 24-hour warming center.

WARNING TO READERS: The video below includes obscenity.

Plenty is wrong with this sequence. First, Sheumaker’s position isn’t even that far from her colleagues’. The city, while far from unassailable on this issue, has made some genuine efforts to address houseless residents’ immediate needs, as well as to examine ways to provide assistance with longer-term barriers. Sheumaker pointed out that cities similar to Des Moines run warming centers without busting their budgets. Itwas an entirely reasonable proposal, and there was no reason not to vote on it.

Second, Cownie and five of his colleagues seem to have taken the principle that council sessions are “business meetings” that require some baseline decorum and — for whatever reason — turned it into a far-more-extreme insistence on cold expediency.

Last year the Des Moines council permitted a farcical series of 30-second slots for “public comment” to go on for weeks before responding by limiting the number of speakers, instead of finding time to hear out angry constituents. (The proposed rule changes do, to be fair, also permit more speakers to address the council — though only after a months-long flood of requests to speak finally abated.)

Indira Sheumaker, a 27-year-old community activist, greets supporters Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, before taking her seat for Ward 1 on the Des Moines City Council.
Indira Sheumaker, a 27-year-old community activist, greets supporters Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, before taking her seat for Ward 1 on the Des Moines City Council.

Lengthy meetings are a sacrifice for public servants; they cost time away from families and full-time jobs. But the council members engage voluntarily in such meetings on all sorts of issues, so it seems strange if they can’t stomach extra debate from their table at their roughly twice-a-month public meetings. Are the other six council members worried that their colleague's ideas will be popular and make them look bad? (And if Sheumaker’s ideas are judged to be bad for Des Moines, they can be serially voted down 6-1.)

Maybe the practical effect of this won’t be great; maybe Cownie will let Sheumaker make suggestions for action whenever and however she wishes.

But it’s intolerable that the person elected by Ward 1 residents has to depend on that courtesy.

This editorial is the opinion of the Des Moines Register's editorial board: Carol Hunter, executive editor; Lucas Grundmeier, opinion editor; and Richard Doak and Rox Laird, editorial board members.


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This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Editorial: Des Moines City Council rule changes are insulting

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