Des Moines City Council still abusing consent agenda

Brandi Webber is a candidate for Des Moines City Council in Ward 3.

So about the Des Moines City Council meetings… You may have seen coverage (again) about distractions, protests and arrests. “Why is this happening?” you may be asking yourself. I certainly can’t answer that alone, but I can add some important context as someone who was inside the chamber during the July 19 meeting.

The council has continually attempted to limit public comment and abuses the consent agenda to push through controversial items, items on police funding, criminalizing and punishing the houseless, denying accessibility concerns and much more. This has been happening over the course of the last year and a half, while the public has been speaking up and begging to be heard. During the virtual meetings the council was able to silence the public. Now that meetings are back to in person, there is no mute button to silence and control the public.

The agenda for the July 19 meeting had multiple items that had no business being on the consent agenda: items that relate to accessibility, climate change, and the public safety budget. Since last month, the council has not allowed public comments about the consent agenda during meetings. The public has been forced to voice concerns on the consent agenda only via email before meetings.

So the public made themselves heard. Groups like Des Moines People’s Town Hall put together email campaigns to make it easier for the public to jump through the ridiculous hoops to simply be heard. The result was city manager Scott Sanders pulling item #54G, which had been on the consent agenda, off of the agenda entirely.

As Andrea Sahouri and Melody Mercado reported for the Des Moines Register on July 19, public records show the CEO of The Conley Group, which provides some security services for the city of Des Moines, “referred to participants in racial justice protests in the city last year as engaging in “terrorism” and members of the local Black Liberation Movement as “little sissy b******.””

The records obtained were emails Tom Conley sent to Des Moines Police Chief Dana Wingert, among others, meaning that city leaders should have had already had all the information they needed to properly evaluate Conley’s contract. The Register found that Conley also made his views public: “Additionally, on his Facebook page, he also referred to protesters as “snot-nosed, punk-@$$ed, basement dwellers” and members of the local Black Liberation Movement as “nothing but weak, punk-***ed little sissy b******.”” More on what should come next with Conley later.

During the July 19 meeting, council members admitted the tremendous amount of feedback they had received on the problematic consent agenda items. Council member Josh Mandelbaum even made a motion to hear public comment on the items, although he felt they were “all pretty basic items that I plan on supporting,” and asked to personally comment on Item #54B.

Then, Council member Joe Gatto said the quiet part out loud by admitting he didn’t even know what items were being asked for public comment because there were so many of them. “I’m not going to support anything like that to sit here and be able to take some kind of criticism or comments of any kind. I think we’ve had plenty of that,” Gatto said.

Side note.. Council is complaining that “all the feedback looks the same.” When you make it this inaccessible to provide feedback to the council on items that impact the community, that is what happens. It should be simple for community members to voice their concerns and it simply is not. But I digress…

The council voted down the motion to allow public comment. Immediately after, they unanimously voted to approve the consent agenda. The only item removed for comment was #54B for Mandelbaum to speak on–but no public input was allowed. That is not how the city council should be operating.

Only after all of these actions by council did the peaceful protests start. The protestors were within the rules and their rights. The police were called in and Mayor Frank Cownie was heard telling them to “do your job.” Police then forcefully arrested four community members, but not before all council members left the chamber as to not bear witness to the fruits of their labor.

Some of the officers involved in the violent arrests were undercover and planted throughout the chamber, taking up spaces meant for the public. What was made clear by the police escalating each interaction with community members is this: “do your job” means to brutalize and intimidate dissenting voices and opinions.

If you are still with me, thank you. So, now what?

The agenda item formerly known as #54G is not gone. After exhaustive reporting by Sahouri and Mercado and countless requests from the public, city manager Sanders pulled the item from the July 19 agenda, but said the matter would be “fully investigated” before the council meets next on August 9. Based on past actions, I would guess that the item will find its way back on the consent agenda after said “investigation.” If that happens, it will be up to the community again to speak out and make themselves heard on what is and what is not acceptable when it comes to public safety in Des Moines.

I would like to go a step further and propose additional steps the council should be taking to begin actually representing the interests of the community.

  1. Revoke any and all contracts with Mr. Conley and his firm. The public comments he made on Facebook should be disqualifying enough, let alone the emails he sent to city leaders that were obtained through Iowa’s open records law.
  2. Immediately investigate Mr. Conley’s contacts with city leadership which were made over the course of the last year. What has been made clear by the reporting, is that the existing contract with Mr. Conley should have been terminated long ago, if only we had city leadership standing up for the best interest of the community.
  3. Council should rescind their unequivocal backing of Scott Sanders and Dana Wingert and DMPD leadership. With the hiding of these interactions with Mr. Conley, it should absolutely bring into question the decision making of city leadership. We, and the city council, should not be above holding those that serve the public responsible for their actions, words and choices.
  4. Require that all items related to public safety be open to public comment. Period.
  5. Implement meaningful and lasting city council procedure reform, making public input the priority. The consent agenda has been continually abused to limit and eliminate public comment and criticism and put through large ticket items for DMPD, developers, and corporations. These items have direct negative impacts on our BIPOC neighbors, LGBTQ+ neighbors, houseless neighbors, our environment, and do not make accessibility for all a priority.

Change is possible. Change is necessary. However, it will not come by waiting for those in charge to decide to do the right thing. We must make our own change by continually pushing for what is right.

Brandi Webber is running for Des Moines City Council in Ward 3. To follow her campaign you can go to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.

Top image: Screenshot from the YouTube video of the Des Moines City Council’s July 19 meeting. Mayor Frank Cownie voiced the captioned words, a warning to protesters.

About the Author(s)

Brandi Webber

  • Ham-handed governance

    from FC. Zero compassion, lazy, brutal public comment procedures, calling in the cops to protect you from the results of your own racist, insensitive, reactionary procedures.

    ….and this is supposed to be a blue county.

  • What's the plan, man?

    I am not familiar enough with the rules of the Des Moines City Council regarding “consent agenda” items to know whether the Council is violating those rules (and this opinion piece — aside from saying the Council is in violation, doesn’t make any effort to provide those rules, or to explain how they are being violated), and I am in favor of the free flow of information.

    I think that Councilman Joe Gatto was wrong to say that he and the Council should not have to listen to public criticism at public hearings and regular council meetings.

    I have no confidence in the City Manager, who acts as a buffer to all things controversial, and who gets paid 1/4 of a million each year to prevent the Council from doing anything politically progressive.

    Having said that, going now in reverse order, it is inconceivable to me that the Council should receive criticism regarding The Conley Group’s remarks about these groups — in particular the “Black Liberation Movement,” and the “Des Moines Peoples’ Town Hall” — to the effect they are “terrorists” and “little sissy bitches,” when in fact, that same City Manager, Scott Sanders, condemned Conley’s remarks as “concerning and inconsistent with the culture and practices of the city of Des Moines,” and went on to say that, “While we have been satisfied with the professionalism of the security services The Conley Group has provided in City Hall for the past 18 months, we do feel comments attributed to Mr. Conley must be properly investigated.”

    Now, I say that recognizing that when Mr. Sanders says an “investigation” will commence, that doesn’t mean that any investigation will be had. I know, for example, that when Mr. Sanders “investigated” pursuing a “Welcoming City” proposal regarding immigrants, he told the City’s legal department to shelve it. Similarly, when it came to revising the City Code in order to implement an anti-racial profiling ordinance consistent with that which was presented to the Council by the Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commission, Mr. Sanders had the legal department do a cursory review and provide a draft ordinance so watered down that its only similarity to the DMCHRC’s version was the title.

    Nonetheless, in those two instances, Mr. Sanders didn’t come out publicly condemning any interested party’s proposals or remarks, as he did in connection with Tom Conley’s facebook posts.

    With respect to the “consent agenda” items, and the Council’s rejection of a public airing of grievances, I comprehend the Council’s 4-2 vote against it at this past Monday’s meeting: every time there is an allocation made to law enforcement, these groups of “Des Moines residents” (and I cannot say for sure whether they are all Des Moines residents — this piece doesn’t vouch for their places of residence) make a mockery of themselves by standing on chairs and chanting, yelling, engaging in ad hominem, snapping their fingers and disrupting the proceedings, in spite of the fact no law is being broken by allocating funds to the police. Rather, they do this to draw attention to themselves and they pretend that there is a code provision defunding the police.

    I have seen Twitter exchanges where these folks set out to carry on at City Council meetings, before the agenda is even posted. Their objective is to draw attention to themselves, purposely misbehave and then objectify themselves as victims. This is unproductive and, I believe, wrong.

    Again, I do not know the particularities of the “consent agenda,” or the agenda, rules on remarks from the public. But I do know that shutting it down, or going into a “recess,” which may be an unlawful form of “executive session,” looks undemocratic and is troubling.

    I also know that misbehaving for misbehaving’s sake is inappropriate because it drowns out the individual resident who has a specific issue that will go unaddressed because of all of the noise.

    I hope this is a temporary matter, both in terms of the City’s handling of public comment, and these groups’ desire to blow off steam with individual members showing off to one another how obnoxious they can be.

    I have to hope that Ms. Webber wants the same. Otherwise, her candidacy will appear to some, perhaps many, as reminiscent of the Van Morrison lyric from, “Wild Nights;” her running for a Council seat will amount to nothing more than, “girls walk[ing] by dressed up for each other.”

  • Lost Cause

    I certainly understand the intent to fight the consent agenda, but that is the lost cause that small group of loud protestors have succeeded in alienating the Des Moines Council. The City Council gets to decide what is or is not a consent item per Iowa Code 21.

    The problem is the protestors have continued to escalate the argument for a year – and the City Council is tired of the attempt to paralyze city government.