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The second-day story, with your help. Call Gazette reporter Adam Belz at (319) 398-8273 or e-mail him: adam.belz@gazcomm.com

The leadership question

A lot of Gazette ink has spilled over the past couple weeks on the question of whether elected leaders in Linn County and Cedar Rapids have been cutting it.

It’s an easy story line. A mayor caught sleeping in meetings, a 9-member city council that sends a different face to the TV cameras every week, a rigorously non-political city manager and a trio of supervisors consumed with re-election and then the re-emergence of a distracting and unnecessary salary controversy.

Gazette Editor Steve Buttry said we are “leaderless”. The paper’s Sunday editorial, titled “Our Leadership Gap,” got more specific:

…state and federal officials are telling this community’s well-meaning leaders that they don’t see the big picture clearly; they aren’t prioritizing. So much deliberating and planning of so many things are slowing overall progress….with a more focused, effective lobbying team, we, for example, may be more able to influence the next round of federal Community Development Grant Block appropriations. The November appropriation gave Iowa, dealing with its worst-ever natural disaster, a disappointing $125 million in federal Community Development Grant Block money.

Gazette CEO Chuck Peters has long been a proponent of the Economic Planning and Redevelopment Corporation as a solution. This awkwardly named group is a public-private partnership led by CRST President John Smith and Downtown District President Doug Neumann. The city approved $50,000 in funding for the group. The county declined to commit.

Peters argues the EPRC is the answer to the leadership question, and his argument goes something like this: Somebody needs to get in the saddle, start marshaling the troops, put together some clear goals and timelines, assign specific jobs to specific people, and begin to articulate the community’s vision for recovery. The biggest immediate need, he and the editorial say, is for a more focused federal lobbying effort, as in, getting more than $125 million when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development releases the next Community Development Block Grants. Identifying available federal money, and then lobbying for it, is a big part of the EPRC’s mission.

The mysteries of HUD are deep and wide, according to Mike Tramontina, the head of the Iowa Department of Economic Development, and Iowa needs a lot of money from HUD. What HUD money the state has received is flowing through Tramontina’s agency, and he visited the Gazette Tuesday, sitting down with Rick Smith and me for a while. The unmet need in Iowa, as of today, is about $1.8 billion, he said. That’s around $900 million each for housing and businesses. The last CDBG appropriation of $125 million was a surprising disappointment, he said.

But he was very clear about one thing. The Iowa Congressional Delegation (Harkin, Grassley, Braley, Loebsack) does not need to be lobbied. Those guys are working very hard for Iowa to get more federal money. He said the best way local governments can help is by giving the delegation facts to bolster the state’s case for money.

Whether or not the delegation is working as hard as it can getting flood recovery dollars for Cedar Rapids, Tramontina’s point makes sense. HUD officials can’t possibly want to deal with more lobbyists than they need to. One would think the most focused way to lobby for federal funds is to work through the delegation, and by Tramontina’s account, that’s what’s happening.

That’s not to say there’s no room for improvement, or for the EPRC. The group’s mission is broader than lobbying for CDBG money, and there’s a lot of other stuff to do. Lots of other federal money to chase. And at least from the county side, it’s hard to argue against better planning and coordination. Communication between city and county has not been good. (Just ask Jim Houser about co-location.) The only tough decisions the supervisors have made since June were to decline Westdale’s exclusive sale offer (sort of a non-decision, really), rescind their part-time status, and then reinstate it. Restoring the jail was not expedited, a December meeting with lobbyists was a depressing, unfocused ramble, and now we hear that building plans won’t emerge for six months, at least. Timelines, action items and results would be nice.

But just as local leaders should make clear plans and be held accountable for them, those of us who criticize them should be specific about what’s going wrong, and what can be done better.

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Filed under: Cedar Rapids City Council, County Government, Flood, , , , ,

One Response

  1. Aaron Staker says:

    The change in government coupled with the disaster has highlighted alot of growing concerns related to competence.

    I recently wrote my Councilman Jerry McGrane and after I found out that he had deleted my email without reading it his response was that his computer skills were not great.

    http://blog.freeisthefuture.org/2009/02/06/jerry-mcgrane-cedar-rapids-city-council-doesnt-do-e-mail/

    The recent debates on red light cameras, and supervisor pay just highlight how disconnected from the day to day alot of our elected officials are.

    Having an unaccountable city manager unfortunately doesn’t help either.

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