By Paige Schlichte
Mayors from around Iowa and one from Wisconsin met on Dec. 1 at FilmScene to discuss what a mayor’s role in a community is and how they address major issues on the local level.
The Mayor’s Perspective Panel Discussion, hosted by the Iowa City Government at FilmScene, 118 E. College St., was born in a meeting Iowa City Mayor Jim Throgmorton had with Madison, Wisconsin, Mayor Paul Soglin at an event in Vermont in August.
Throgmorton reached out to Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart and Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, and the idea became a reality.
“What a mayor does is not so obvious — it varies widely from city to city in terms of the way a mayor is elected and the role they play in city government,” Throgmorton said.
Theresa Mangum, the director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, moderated the event, beginning with a discussion of the challenges each mayor faced in his community. The topics of housing, workforce, economic development, and growing diversity are issues that arose across the board.
In terms of housing, Soglin stressed the notion of housing first — the idea that in order to tackle other critical needs such as unemployment or health, the city first needs to provide housing.
“We do not want to become gentrified like San Francisco, where housing has become out of the financial reach of the people who live in the community,” Soglin said. “A city is not its physical aspects — it is the people.”
Throgmorton said Iowa City supports the housing-first perspective as well.
Corbett focused on the importance of creating grass-roots changes in order to successfully alter the community for the better, something officials learned the hard way after the 2008 flood.
“The problem with top-down decisions is if there isn’t any community support, decisions aren’t sustainable because there’s no community ownership in them,” Corbett said. “Decisions need to be made from the bottom up, so there’s a sense of ownership and pride people have in rebuilding the community.”
Hart also stressed a grass-roots approach in resolving the challenges he faces in his community.
“There’s a new story that I need to tell people about the place I was born and raised, and we’re working on getting that information out,” Hart said.
Another major challenge discussed across the board were the changes in local government following the 2016 presidential election.
“Suddenly, we faced a very different national and state administration, which meant major changes in policy and budgets at these levels,” Throgmorton said. “Trying to figure out how to respond to these executive orders in a way that is consistent with the preferences of the people of our city is challenging. The current presidential position on certain issues are antithetical to values that make Iowa City work, values like inclusivity and diversity.”
He noted that in times such as these, he feels it is up to mayors to display moral clarity and to strengthen the bonds of community across racial, ethnic, and political divides.
“Being mayor is a difficult and stressful position,” Throgmorton said. “But it is also very, very rewarding. When we make important strides with regards to specific changes that we believe will improve our city for all its residents, that success feels very rewarding.”