Interview #128: Dubuque, IA Council Member Luis Del Toro (with podcast)

This podcast interview is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM, and right here:

Luis Del Toro entered the Dubuque council in 2016 and explains how he became a bit of an iconoclast, not shying away from dissent or from pushing policy changes. Plus, he clarified why council members seemed so critical of the renters and landlords who came before the council to ask for a ruling.

Q: I noticed a little over a year ago that people started coming into the council meetings to speak about source-of-income discrimination. How did Dubuque get roped into the fight for economic justice?

A: When it came to housing choice vouchers, the city got themselves in a little bit of hot water with [the Department of Housing and Urban Development]. We had some ways that we were trying to divvy those out, and that was seen as discriminatory by HUD. We had to come up with a plan, but we had citizens petition us to make the acceptance of those vouchers mandatory. We’ve opted to not get to that step yet.

Q: Right, the more moderate solutions were what your council voted on in early 2017. However, all of a sudden, Council Member Kevin Lynch broadsided the commenters in the room, scolding them for not working cohesively. How did you feel about that?

A: What he’s referencing is we had a source-of-income committee that was a combination of organizations within our city as well as the landlords that were supposedly trying to come up with a plan for us. What seemed to come out of that was more of an us-versus-them them perspective. They weren’t listening to each other. They couldn’t agree upon what presentation they wanted to bring before council.

Q: The council members seemed to be saying, “you all should have agreed on your own rather than come to us to decide for you.” That took me aback because that is what the government does all the time: it resolves policy disagreements by deciding what is the law. Were these council members offended that they had to make a decision on something?

A: I wouldn’t necessarily say that. I think it was the expectation of having a lot of smart people in the room and a lot of individuals that are very capable of coming up with a solution that actually showed some partnership between the two groups.

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Dubuque, IA Council Member Luis Del Toro

Q: I get the impulse to chastise the two sides, but isn’t it a bit naive to think that two groups of people with very different economic interests will find the common ground that you think they have? Was this a small town expectation of civility that you were projecting onto them?

A: It could be viewed that way. We are a little bit smaller and we’ve always prided ourselves in being able to find answers to problems that seem a little bigger than we are.

Q: On February 18 this year, you proposed an emergency cancellation policy for city council meetings in cases of inclement weather. I assume this covers blizzards, floods, and deluges of presidential candidates?

A: Well, apparently yes! We did vote later that evening to change our upcoming meeting next year due to the caucusing here in Iowa. But right now, our only provision within our city code is we can make adjustments to our meeting date and time 30 days in advance. Obviously, a lot of things can happen in 30 days. This year, we had wind chills that were 60 below. Travel wasn’t advised. We had no provision in place that gave us the opportunity to delay our council meeting to possibly the next evening.

Q: Do you think the criticism from other council members and the mayor that “the council meeting must go on and we’ve managed in bad weather before” is a healthy attitude to have?

A: No, not at all. I respectfully disagree. It should come down to valuing the safety of our citizens as well as ourselves and city staff in trying to get to these meetings. There was a no-tow ban put in place. If you were out on that road and you went into a ditch trying to navigate our icy streets, no help was coming for you. With frostbite that could occur in five to ten minutes, those are dangerous conditions to expect individuals to attend a meeting.

#167: Oskaloosa, IA 9/4/18

A flurry of confusion threatened to derail public comment after a man with a ponytail and shorts leaned into the microphone and quietly began his remarks.

“I came in tonight to speak about the resolution to sell–”

“We can’t hear you!” interrupted one council member.

“Speak up a little more,” coached another.

“Hey, Kyle! That microphone doesn’t work. That’s just for the tape,” shouted a third over the crosstalk.

The man at the lectern swung the microphone away from his face and restarted his statement, prompting another fusillade of instructions from every possible direction.

“Let’s get you on TV!”

“We’re still gonna want you to speak into it.”

“We still want you to speak into it so that people at home–”

“Gotcha,” the man responded calmly to cut off the furor. “It’s on TV, too? I didn’t know they still recorded this.”

“You’re live right now!” exclaimed a council member, causing the audience to burst out in laughter, with some smiling knowingly at the camera staring them in the face.

“Cool,” the man nodded. “I was behind the camera like a decade ago.”

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Oh, how the lenses have turned!

Moving into the substance of the meeting, Mayor David Krutzfeldt outlined a tricky scenario that stemmed from a meeting several weeks prior.

“The city council discussed the potential sale of several city owned properties,” he prefaced, one of which was 207 North G Street. “An appraisal of the property had been completed with a value of $33,000.”

“In August,” he continued, “staff received a letter requesting to purchase the lot for $10,000. His justification for offering less than the appraised value is that there are significant costs to make the lot developable.”

“At this time, the motion is to set the public hearing.”

City manager Michael Schrock cautioned the council, “it’s not always about the dollar amount. It’s about the plan and the concept. He’s presented a letter saying, ‘hey, I know you have this. Will you sell it to me?’ We’ve done that before.”

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The Art of the Deal

“We don’t have to make a decision in two weeks, do we?” quizzed Council Member Steve Burnett.

“No,” replied Schrock. “We’re required to hold a public hearing for any disposal of property. Say, ‘okay. Anybody that’s interested, come on in.’ You could have a third party show up, which we’ve had before. We had people basically outbidding each other in the audience.” Some council members chuckled at the imagined chaos.

Schrock clarified: “that wasn’t ideal.”

“So the public hearing–Wendell would be there with his bid and somebody else could show up and bid on it as well?” an incredulous Council Member Bob Drost reiterated.

“But we’re asking for more than dollars,” interjected Council Member Tom Walling, attempting to tamp down the expectations of a free-for-all in two weeks. “The more complete the proposal is, the higher the likelihood something gets approved that night.”

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Bring blueprints, people

There was a minor commotion from the back of the room. The mayor raised his eyebrows. “Wendell, if there’s something you think the council needs to know–?”

The man with the plan was all at once at the lectern. “I’ve been here for six and a half, almost seven years. I don’t plan on going anywhere else. It makes sense to me to try and control my investment,” he announced firmly–perhaps firmly enough to scare off the competition.

With that, the hearing date was set. May the bidding begin!

Month in Review: October 2017

October is an exciting month because you can always count on at least one city council to really get into the Halloween spirit. Sure enough, Wisconsin delivered. But there were plenty of other highlights, including a sudden competition between two cupcakeries and a mayoral field trip that I may have been invited to.

The podcast was also busy, as we heard from a former Scottish Highland dancer, a city manager who remembered the ejection of one council member, and a robot-heavy episode of our “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project. Look at the highlights in our October Month in Review.

And if you still aren’t convinced that last month was any different from the other 11 months of the year, THIS wizard-priest will cast a spell on you:

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Special Feature! Best of “Best Thing, Worst Thing”

This past year, I had an AMAZING experience. I visited 12 cities and towns across North America for the “Best Thing, Worst Thing” project. The idea was simple: see as much of the city as I could, talk to as many people as I could, and ask them all the same two questions.

What is the best thing about this place?

What is the worst thing about this place?

Answering those questions can be surprisingly difficult, but it was important for me to hear about individuals’ values and experiences with their communities. I learned that a small city in conservative western Kansas thinks of itself as “progressive.” I learned that diversity in Toronto is much heralded, but also has a dark side. And I was present for a medical emergency in the desert outside Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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Butter tart bake-off in Toronto, ON

The goal was to find out what cities are doing well to make their communities livable for residents. Then, to find out what people want that their cities aren’t providing now.

You can listen to all 12 episodes on the project page. And this week, I bring you the highlights in a special audio episode about the best of the “Best Thing, Worst Thing.” This “best of” is available on iTunesStitcherPlayer FM and right here:

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Robotics camp in Pittsburgh, PA

If you liked what you heard, please give the podcast a five-star rating on iTunes and like our Facebook page. There are other big projects in the works, so keep checking back!

#134: Iowa City, IA 10/3/17

Mayor Jim Throgmorton couldn’t avoid it. He had to address it. And within the first minute, he joined thousands of other mayors at council meetings across the country in saying:

“I want to express our profound shock and grief about the mass shooting that took place in Las Vegas.”

He frowned deeply. “Will this sequence of mass killings never end?”

After ordering a minute of silence, the mayor looked up, attempting to lighten the mood.

“Sometimes transitions can be very awkward,” he acknowledged with an avuncular grin. “We have two proclamations.”

Now, if the first proclamation were for “Clowns and Balloon Animal Appreciation Week,” it might have indeed been an awkward transition. But in reality, the segue was far more muted from gun horrors to…Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

“How do you move forward when the one place you are supposed to be safe is no longer?” a woman stood at the lectern and gave a heartfelt acceptance speech for the proclamation. “When everything about your life has been controlled in every way?”

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The rhetorical questions were strong today.

Because Columbus Day was fast approaching, the next proclamation naturally declared–well, not what you’d expect for Iowa:

“Iowa City is built on the homelands of the indigenous peoples and the city is dedicated to opposing systemic racism,” Mayor Throgmorton read. “The city encourages other businesses, organizations, and institutions to recognize Indigenous People’s Day.”

Being a business, an organization, and an institution, City Council Chronicles will up the ante and declare next week Indigenous People’s WEEK. Ball’s in your court, Iowa City.

Moving on to the student representative from the University of Iowa, he informed the council that “we held our first town hall to figure out what topics they had on their minds. The topic was voted on via Twitter poll–we’re millennials, how else would we do things?” he took a small dig at his generation.

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Some of my best college memories were Twitter polls.

He added, in the college spirit: “real quick shameless plug for my fraternity’s philanthropy. We are hosting a 0.1K on October 15.”

Several people giggled at the premise, but he continued wryly. “I understand that’s a far distance and y’all aren’t trained for it. We’ll have a watering hole at the halfway mark.”

“Do you think it’s gonna take that long to run it?” quizzed Council Member Susan Mims facetiously.

“It might,” the student deadpanned, prompting chuckles.

The mayor sat up as he remembered something. “Hey Ben, I’d like to note that on November 28, I’m going to be visiting with student government.”

“You will!” Ben agreed.

“Yeah. I’m looking forward to that.” His brow furrowed and he raised his voice. “BUT IT’S MY BIRTHDAY!”

“We’ll have a cupcake for you,” Ben insisted. “Do you prefer Molly’s [Cupcakes] or Scratch [Cupcakery]?”

“Molly’s,” hissed several council members and folks in the audience. The mayor was forced to acquiesce to the seething mob.

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Partisan crowd

“The Englert [Theater] has done it again,” Council Member Terry Dickens informed his colleagues breathlessly. “They’re bringing Arlo Guthrie! It’s pretty exciting that we get somebody of that quality here.”

“Terry?” Mayor Throgmorton leaned in and cheekily made reference to a Guthrie song, “where can you get everything you want?”

Dickens didn’t miss a beat. “The Englert!”

The mayor was disappointed his joke didn’t land. “No! You can get everything you want–”

“One of his great songs, yes,” Dickens nodded without taking the bait.

Final thoughts: For the record, the answer is “Alice’s Restaurant.”

Month in Review: August 2017

Summer may be winding down, but the city council meetings are heating up! The biggest news out of August was International City Hall Selfie Day. You can check your social media for the thousands of images generated on the holiest of high holidays or you can peruse my Top 10 list instead. I also invited a top selfie expert on the podcast to pick an ultimate winner.

Of course, we saw our fair share of drama in city council meetings, including two mayors who raised their voices at council members and an entire council meeting that very quickly turned into a bonfire. If you missed that Jerry Springer plotline, go scan the August Month in Review.

And if you don’t know why this man is pointing at heaven…it’s because he’s pointing at heaven. But the reason will blow your heathen mind:

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#127: Council Bluffs, IA 8/28/17

It took astonishingly little time for the Council Bluffs council meeting to go from zero to 11.

“I need to know what kind of right-of-way you guys are going to take,” the owner of a tire store fretted.

“Jack, I believe it would be just enough to do the sidewalks on the corner,” Mayor Matt Walsh informed him in a low, gravelly tone.

This upset the tire man even more. “They wanna come 25-foot into my parking lot to put the signs, street lights…I cannot afford to lose that kind of parking!”

“I don’t believe we’re talking about 25 feet into your parking lot–” the mayor tried to reassure him.

“I just cannot afford to lose any more parking,” repeated the man.

The mayor nodded, unmoved. “Perfectly understandable.”

“I’m not trying to be the bad guy. But I cannot afford to lose any more parking.”

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I think he’s got it.

Mayor Walsh hunched over and calculated how to end the interaction. “I can’t answer you with any specificity tonight. I can get your phone number out of the phone book.”

The man thanked him, adding, “I cannot afford to lose any more parking.”

Councilmember Nate Watson flattened out his notes and mused about the dilemma. “I think there are a lot of competing interests, though I’d remind all of us that any further alterations to the master plan may test the patience of the funder of such improvements.”

The Funder? Who is this mysterious and impatient funder-who-must-not-be-named? And if he gets angry, how many virgins must the city sacrifice to appease him?

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“Prepare the goat’s blood, madam clerk.”

“It’s primarily geared to making sure there’s enough space on the corner so we can meet the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Watson explained.

Abruptly, the tire store owner moved toward the front and began arguing back from the gallery.

The mayor remained placid. “It’s NOT authorizing them to take your property,” he said firmly. The man continued to protest.

Councilmember Watson nodded sympathetically. However, his sympathy was seemingly at its breaking point. “Your opinion matters a great deal, but it’s not the only one,” he replied gently.

The council moved on to talking about a parking garage. But Councilmember Al Ringgenberg ringgen-berated the whole concept.

“I question whether this is in the best interest of the city,” he frowned. “Not long ago we were provided documents and included is $2 million for [a] parking ramp down payment.”

He appeared deeply frustrated. “What I have a problem with is using general obligation funds that should be used to repair crumbling streets and sewers.”

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Ah, yes. I see the design flaw.

Mayor Walsh grew visibly irritated, raising his voice. “So this is an ongoing diatribe of false statements–”

“Mr. Mayor, point of order!” Ringgenberg interjected in surprise.

“It’s my turn to talk, Mr. Ringgenberg,” the mayor thundered. “It’s my turn to talk!”

“First of all, the $2 million was NOT general obligation money. Second of all, we are the SECOND LOWEST city in Iowa with debt!”

Council members looked uneasily around the dais after the mayor concluded his angry rebuke.

Watson stared out to the audience. “There are a good number of young men here today for their communications merit badge.”

His face was expressionless as he added, “that’s what makes our country great. Stay involved.”

Final thoughts: I can’t imagine what kind of communications lessons were learned here, but 10 out of 10 stars to The Funder, if He’s watching. (He always is.)