Des Moines City Council members flouted gender balance requirement

Two Des Moines City Council members seeking re-election on November 5 used their appointment powers to perpetuate a gender imbalance on a key board in the state’s largest city, despite a state law requiring certain local boards to have no more than a simple majority of male or female members.

Joe Gatto, who represents Ward 4, and Linda Westergaard (Ward 2) both named men to fill vacancies on the Des Moines Plan and Zoning Commission when state law indicated a woman should have been appointed. Gatto has done so twice. The second time, his choice worsened the commission’s imbalance and happened well before the end of a statutory period during which officials are supposed to make a “good faith effort” to find someone from the underrepresented gender.

THE LAW

Iowa has required state boards and commissions to be gender-balanced since 1987. Boards with an even number of members must have equal numbers of men and women. Boards with an odd number can have no more than a simple majority of either gender (for instance, four out of seven or five out of nine). A 2009 statute extended the same requirements to certain city and county boards, effective 2012. Just eight states have enacted a similar mandate for state boards–Iowa was the first. No other state requires gender balance on local boards.

The Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics has been tracking the impact of the gender balance rules for local government. Researchers reported in 2018 that 63 percent of boards and commissions in 207 cities surveyed were in compliance with gender balance rules. Compliance at the county level was roughly 59 percent and has improved more slowly, compared to municipal governments.

Only local boards that have been established in the Iowa Code are subject to the state’s gender balance requirements. In 2012, Des Moines City Council member Skip Moore had a survey done and learned that many of the city’s boards and commissions were mostly male, and two were 100 percent male. “It blatantly pissed me off,” he recalled during an October 27 telephone interview with Bleeding Heartland.

Moore added an item to the council’s agenda in July 2012, seeking to make all the capital city’s boards and commissions subject to gender balance requirements. His proposal failed on a 5-2 vote, with Mayor Frank Cownie the only other supporter. When it was Moore’s turn to appoint someone to one of those all-male commissions, he kept the slot open for some time until he identified a woman qualified for and interested in the position.

The Catt Center found in 2018 that all but one of the Des Moines boards required to be gender balanced were meeting the terms set under state law. The exception was the Plan and Zoning Commission, among the most sought-after local positions. Ten commissioners were men and five were women.

THE PRACTICE IN DES MOINES

Iowa Code Chapter 69.16A allows local governments to get around the gender-balance requirement if

the political subdivision has made a good faith effort to appoint a qualified person to fill a vacancy on a board, commission, committee, or council in compliance with subsection 1 for a period of three months but has been unable to make a compliant appointment.

That loophole was envisioned for small communities, where it may genuinely be difficult to find a balanced group of volunteers to serve on a given board.

In a city of more than 200,000 people, it’s hard to imagine that suitable men or women would be lacking for any government panel. Nevertheless, Moore remembered various colleagues using the “trick” of holding vacancies open for three months, then claiming they couldn’t find a woman for the position. Longtime Des Moines city council member Christine Hensley, who retired in 2017, “was notorious” for doing that, Moore said.

Among the current council members, Gatto and Westergaard have carried on the tradition.

The Plan and Zoning Commission could have been gender balanced a long time ago. A vacancy arose in January 2015, leaving eight men and six women on the fifteen-member commission. According to the rotating schedule the Des Moines council follows, it was Bob Mahaffey’s turn to fill that spot, but he opted not to exercise his appointment power, having decided to retire at the end of the year. Westergaard won the 2015 election to replace Mahaffey as Ward 2 representative and named her choice, Steve Wallace, in April 2016.

The council unanimously approved Westergaard’s recommendation, which attested to the fact that “A good faith effort has been made for more than three months to appoint a qualified female.”

Bleeding Heartland contacted Westergaard repeatedly over the past month seeking details on how she approached that appointment. As a real estate agent active in her community, Westergaard would presumably be acquainted with women who are capable of making planning and zoning decisions. Had she reached out to her network through e-mails, newsletters, mailed letters, or social media posts seeking qualified female applicants? Westergaard provided no comment or records showing she had attempted to find a woman for the position.

Another opportunity to balance the commission arose in the summer of 2016. Tim Fitzgerald stepped down two years after his appointed term on Plan and Zoning had expired, leaving eight male and six female colleagues. It was Gatto’s turn to appoint, and he named Rocky Sposato. Again, the council unanimously approved the recommendation, which attested to a “good faith effort” to find a qualified woman.

Gatto had another opportunity to appoint a Plan and Zoning commissioner the following year. Jo Anne Corigliano’s departure left nine men and five women on the commission. Gatto moved quickly to replace her with a man, Chris Cutler. His recommendation, dated December 4, 2017, attested to a good faith effort “for more than three months to appoint a qualified female.” Yet not even ten days had passed since Corigliano’s resignation on November 25.

Again, council members unanimously approved the recommendation, which left the commission with twice as many men as women.

Gatto did not respond to multiple requests for comment and information. Had he made any effort to find a woman for that position? Why did he rush to appoint Cutler, then claim in writing to have searched for a qualified female for more than three months?

A woman living in Des Moines told Bleeding Heartland that before 2016, she had applied for an opening on the Plan and Zoning Commission and reached out to city council members including Gatto (who was first elected in 2014). She said Gatto indicated via e-mail that he would value her input but never got in touch when it was his turn to appoint commissioners.

Cutler resigned after about a year on the commission, and Gatto appointed Emily Webb in February 2019, bringing the body one step closer to gender balance. But the planning and zoning board in Iowa’s largest city was not compliant with state law until August 2019, when council member Josh Mandelbaum appointed Abigail Chungath to a seat formerly held by a man.

Since joining the council in early 2018, Mandelbaum had repeatedly criticized the city’s failure to comply fully with gender balance rules. When he raised concerns about longstanding practices and offered solutions, the reactions from Gatto and Westergaard were revealing.

PRIORITIZING A “RELATIONSHIP” WITH APPOINTEES

Mandelbaum put the gender balance problem on the council’s agenda for a June 2018 meeting, highlighting the imbalance on Plan and Zoning.

The Planning and Zoning Commission is one of the most important local boards and state law requires it to be gender balanced. […]

Yet the @DesMoinesGov Planning and Zoning Commission has 10 men and 5 women. In a community of 215,000 people, it should not be a problem to find seven qualified women to serve on Planning and Zoning.

During that city council meeting, Gatto articulated his thought process regarding appointments. My transcript of remarks beginning around the 1:16:00 mark of this video:

Part of the reason that we appoint people–not only, as Council Member [Connie] Boesen said, that they’re qualified–but also that our commissioners also have a relationship with the council member to keep us informed of different things. Because when I took this seat, I had two commissioners, that I left on there for, probably, three years, that I didn’t appoint anybody. I never had one conversation with them throughout the entire time that they were on the commission, as commissioners.

That’s one of the reasons that I have appointed people that I feel that are very, very qualified, and have a relationship [with], because what they bring up and what goes through them has to come through us.

Nothing prevents Gatto from picking up the phone to speak with anyone serving on any city board. He seems to think it’s impossible for city council members to get feedback from board members without some prior personal connection.

State Representative Mary Mascher, who floor-managed the 2009 bill in the Iowa House, told the Des Moines Register last year that short-circuiting the insider game was one of the goals of extending gender balance requirements to local boards.

“It was kind of a good ol’ boys club for a long time,” she said. “A lot of men would ask their friends and that’s how they would get other people involved.”

As mentioned above, a woman had told Gatto she was interested in the planning and zoning commission. He didn’t circle back with her before appointing Sposato, and I’ve seen no evidence he tried to recruit a woman in 2016 or 2017.

Speaking of relationships, Sposato chairs Gatto’s campaign committee and has done so since 2015. In August 2017, when official documents listed Sposato as chairperson, the campaign made an unusual expenditure of $10,000 to Sposato’s firm GOTV, LLC for “consultant services.” That company “specializes in organizing and voter turnout.”

The odd part is that Gatto wasn’t up for re-election in 2017. Why spend $10,000 for political consulting at that time? All other recorded campaign payments to Sposato’s company have happened close to elections. (A PAC supporting a local option sales tax in Polk County hired GOTV, LLC for work before ballot initiatives in 2018 and 2019, and a state legislative campaign made expenditures totaling $10,000 around the time of the June 2016 Democratic primary.)

UPDATE: According to a campaign finance disclosure filed on October 31, Sposato still chairs Gatto’s campaign committee, which paid GOTV, LLC $3,200 for “professional fees” in April and another $46,281.00 from August through October for consultant services, including data analytics, phone banking, and an absentee ballot drive.

“WE JUST HAVE TO SIT THERE AND WAIT THREE MONTHS”

When the Des Moines City Council was considering a change to the code on the Parks and Recreation Board in July 2019, Mandelbaum proposed adding gender balance language to the ordinance before the second reading. “This board is gender balanced, but I think it makes sense to put that in our requirements, in order to ensure that it actually happens going forward,” he said, beginning around the 28:00 mark of this video.

Gatto expressed some reservations: “As we go forward, with the expertise, I mean, is there going to be certain waivers that we can have if we can’t find someone that we feel is qualified, like we do now?” After being assured that language would be part of the ordinance, he agreed to a “friendly amendment” to incorporate gender balance language in city code on the parks board. That passed unanimously.

Gatto didn’t respond to follow-up questions submitted by e-mail, such as: is it plausible that in a city the size of Des Moines, there would not be qualified women available to serve? Which boards or commissions are you worried about, and on what basis do you feel waivers might be needed?

The council agreed to a broader conversation about gender balance during an upcoming work session. Bleeding Heartland obtained audio from that August 19 meeting through a public records request.

The council members talked about the issue for about ten minutes. Westergaard asserted that the rules might be getting in the way of finding qualified board members.

I know when I appoint people, like for Board of Adjustment, I’m looking at somebody that’s qualified, that gets it, that understands. I think we’ve got some boards and commissions where people are appointed, and in my opinion, they’re not qualified to serve. They don’t–I mean, they’re not knowledgeable into how it works, to sit. But because they’re a woman or because they’re a man, they’re appointed. I think it’s more important to get the right person on the board.

I sent Westergaard an e-mail seeking to clarify: was she implying that in a city the size of Des Moines there might not be enough women capable of serving on the Board of Adjustment? If council members don’t know a qualified person of the underrepresented gender on a given board, couldn’t they do some outreach? I received no reply.

During the August workshop, Gatto observed, “Planning and Zoning’s only been an issue, so we just have to sit there and wait three months and say, this is the best I can find.”

Mandelbaum interjected, “There’s no excuse for something like Planning and Zoning to not always be gender-balanced.” He noted that board had been out of balance for years and suggested a rule change to stop the problem from recurring. Mandelbaum also proposed extending gender balance requirements to most of the city bodies not subject to state law, starting in 2020. At this writing, the council has not enacted broad rules on that subject.

I sought comment from Gatto: why not try harder to find a qualified woman when state law indicates a woman should be appointed to a certain board? Why “sit there and and wait three months and say, this is the best I can find”? I received no reply.

“YOU’RE ROBBING ONE GENDER OF THEIR OPPORTUNITY”

Moore touted his efforts to expand the city’s gender balance requirements during his successful 2013 re-election campaign. He lost his bid for a third term as at-large council member to Connie Boesen in 2017 and is now running against Westergaard in Ward 2.

Moore confirmed to Bleeding Heartland on October 27 that he still believes all local boards and commissions should be gender balanced and is committed to making that happen if he rejoins the Des Moines council. Those positions are “a training ground for future politicians, and if you don’t make it gender balanced, you’re robbing one gender of their opportunity, and that’s not right.”

“IT’S THE CITY THAT SUFFERS BECAUSE OF IT”

I also contacted Chelsea Chism-Vargas, who is running against Gatto and would be the first woman to represent Ward 4 if elected. In an October 28 telephone interview, she said she is fully committed to “fighting for gender equality” in many areas of life. (Her day job with Planned Parenthood is related to reproductive rights.)

Would Chism-Vargas support an ordinance requiring gender balance on every city board and commission? Absolutely, she is for “having a diverse mix of voices.” At the same time, she has concerns the current model could leave some people out. “I would also be pushing to make sure” that the city’s gender balance rules are inclusive of the transgender, gender-nonconforming, and non-binary communities, she told me. “We need to make sure that everyone has a voice at the table.” Chism-Vargas noted, “The rest of the world is quickly realizing that gender identity is very fluid and exists outside of just masculine and feminine.”

When elected officials do not comply with gender balance rules, Chism-Vargas added, “Of course it reflects poorly on them, but it’s the city that suffers because of it.” It hurts the growth and future of Des Moines when marginalized voices are not included in decision-making bodies.

Overrepresentation of men on Des Moines government bodies didn’t start with Gatto and Westergaard. But through their words and actions, those two council members have shown correcting those imbalances is not among their priorities. And while other issues are at the center of the Moore and Chism-Vargas campaigns, the challengers would work to make government boards and commissions better reflect the citizens they serve.

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