Has the First Amendment been repealed?

STRAY THOUGHTS

BY RANDY EVANS

It was quite a week last week with the buzz about impeachment.

Relax. I’m not referring to President Donald Trump.

I’m talking about the mayor of Muscatine.

Diana Broderson was removed from office by a 7-0 vote of the city council on Thursday. The meeting lasted three minutes. There was no discussion by the council members, and they offered no explanation of their votes.

Earlier this year, the council directed the city attorney to prepare a statement of impeachment charges against the mayor. Then the council heard two days of testimony during a “trial” this spring.

The charges involved an assortment of supposed violations of city policies or city ordinances — infractions like holding a monthly “coffee” to meet with city residents without first getting the permission from the city council, or failing to obtain permission from the city administrator before speaking with city employees, or criticizing the motives of council members or city staff.

I’m not making this up. The charges were categorized as “willful misconduct and maladministration of office.”

Those violations should leave most Iowans wondering if they were asleep when the First Amendment was repealed in Muscatine. The charges should have people asking whether this was the first time the Muscatine mayor and other city officials were not in lock-step about how to run the city.

Broderson was elected by residents in November 2015. It’s fair to say that she upset the status quo when she arrived at City Hall.

She was a newcomer to political office, and she comes from a family of union members. But voters chose her by a comfortable margin over the incumbent mayor.

The first signs of trouble surfaced when the former social worker decided that she was going to bring new voices onto city boards and commissions instead of appointing people who had received the blessing of local business leaders and a majority of council members.

That didn’t go well.

And almost from the beginning, Broderson found herself crosswise with the city administrator and the council.

The city council decided to strip the mayor of her appointment power. The mayor asked the Iowa attorney general’s office whether the council could take away that authority, and the state said the council had not acted properly.

The mayor asked the state auditor’s office to re-audit Muscatine’s finances, and the auditor agreed. She tried to create an informal task force to study possible changes to the city’s form of government. She complained about a contractor chosen by the city administrator for a project in Muscatine after problems in Davenport with the same contractor.

It’s certainly possible Broderson was naive about the actual power the mayor has. One of her supporters later said city government in Muscatine envisions the mayor being “just a ribbon-cutter.”

And it’s true that at times she was rather clumsy in what she was trying to accomplish and in how she was trying to achieve her goals — such as asking the Muscatine County attorney to charge two journalists for quoting her in conversations she said were off the record.

But does rocking the boat or being something of a bumbler equate to impeachable offenses? After all, she was elected by the people, and her term expires in seven months.

Do we really want a mayor to be removed from office for failing to get the council’s approval before she meets with constituents? Do we really want a mayor to be punished for talking with city employees without the city administrator’s permission?

Broderson’s lawyer, William Sueppel of Iowa City, summarized her case this way: “Breach of etiquette, stern language, breach of decorum, public disagreement and conflicting opinions do not come close to the intent of the law warranting removal of an elected official. Greed, corruption, fraud and other serious crimes of moral turpitude call for removal.”

You can bet the Iowa Supreme Court will ultimately decide whether the Muscatine City Council acted properly.

But before that happens, it will be the voters of Muscatine who will have a lot to say — when they go to the polls in November for the 2017 city election and elect a mayor and three  council members.

Until then, just sit back and watch the events that are playing out in Washington, D.C. Now that makes Muscatine look like a finely tuned instrument.