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PO Box 112
Sioux Center, IA 51250

I was thankful that GoPitchTV recorded Monday night’s city council meeting in Centerville. At the end of the meeting, about 23 minutes into the video of the full council gathering, public discussion was allowed regarding the controversy surrounding the city moving the nativity scene from the town square to privately owned property.

As I watched the meeting, a handful of statements jumped out to me.

  1. For starters, mayor Mike O’Connor noted the council doesn’t typically have much of a public presence at its meetings.

“I realize that we don’t normally have these faces with us every council meeting, so I’m pretty sure I know why you’re all here,” he said.

O’Connor said they would try to set a timeline. Typically, O’Connor said, there’s a three-minute rule when the council gets input from the community.

“So have your thoughts together,” O’Connor said.

He encouraged people to have a spokesman.

“I’d like to move through this. I don’t want this to be a marathon,” O’Connor said.

Centerville doesn’t typically have big issues like this. To start a public discussion by telling the public that there will be a limited number of folks able to speak and they’d be limited to three minutes each, seems rough.

To follow it up by saying “I don’t want this to be a marathon” is downright wrong.

The mayor starts this portion of the meeting coming across as smug and elitist. He doesn’t set a good tone for the discussion. The city operates because of its citizens, not the other way around.

2. The city administrator, Jason Fraser, says that the city in the past has given blanket approval to the chamber of commerce to utilize the square for tourism and commerce-related events.

“Generally, we don’t provide any feedback for the chamber of commerce for their events like the pancake day or the holiday displays,” Fraser said. “We generally don’t regulate the content of the chamber displays or activities.”

So, if I’m following along correctly, it sounds like the city of Centerville is making an exception in this case. It’s taking a rare, if not unprecedented step, of “regulating” the content of the holiday display.

As I heard this, my mind immediately reversed the situation. Let’s say the atheists wanted to have a display at the square. It was approved and the display was public for weeks.

An anonymous person complains to the city, would the city step in suddenly and do something it has never done before and move the display?

I’m not an oddsmaker, but I have a pretty good guess what would’ve happened if the shoe were on the other foot.

3. Fraser says that the city needs to review the use of the city square as a public use space.

“We’ve allowed about everything up there at different times,” he said. “We don’t have any sort of formal policy as to who can and can’t use it and what it can be used for.”

OK, wait. After hearing that the city is likely taking unprecedented action in reviewing the chamber display, now we’re hearing that the city has allowed “about everything” up there?

So of all the events that have ever happened at the square in Centerville, the one thing the city is going to step in and say no to is a nativity scene?

I’m not often left speechless, but I’ve got nothing.

4. As pastor Tony Angran asks the city to “please, put it back,” the mayor says he heard the recommendation.

“I think it’s safe to say, for the next nine days, the nativity scene is going to stay where it is.”

This is part one of two from this exchange that I want to highlight. Fraser said before any member of the public spoke, his recommendation was to keep the nativity scene at the private property it is currently on.

If I’m a resident of Centerville who took time out of my Monday evening to attend this council meeting, then what the heck am I doing here? If nothing is going to be done for nine days (and nine days from today is Christmas), then why are we having this discussion at all?

Again, small-town public bodies should embrace citizen input, not ignore it. When you have a “recommendation” put forth before a word is spoken by the public, and then the mayor refers back to that “recommendation” and basically makes a decree, it sounds like this public discussion was really a public waste of time.

Perhaps that is the mayor was so antsy to get things over with. Because in reality, what the public said did not matter one iota.

5. Fraser giving his recommendation before any member of the public had a chance to speak doesn’t seem right. Fraser is not elected. Fraser does not represent the people of Centerville. He works for them. Big difference.

City managers often have too big of a role. Again, they are unelected, yet in many small towns, they run the show.

In this case, Fraser has admitted he did not talk with an attorney about this. He simply reviewed two Supreme Court cases and went from there.

Perhaps he stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but he isn’t the city attorney. He is the city manager.

It begs the question, where was the city attorney?

Angran said he reached out to Liberty Counsel and had been in contact with that group. Liberty Counsel instructed him that the city needs to put the nativity scene back at the square and Liberty Counsel would come and fight the battle for Centerville. The city would not be charged a dime.

The mayor couldn’t seem any less interested.

“Well. OK. Appreciate that. Thank you.”

We know governments don’t excel at finding solutions, but if a citizen literally brings a solution to his or her government, you’d think the government would be more interested in listening.

After all, Angran did what Fraser should’ve done — sought legal advice.

6. Prior to one of the citizens speaking, O’Connor reminds him that he’s got three minutes, and they’ve got other things they have to get to.

Mr. Mayor, how often do you have residents show up wanting to address the council? Is it too much to ask that they are allowed to do so? We get it. You don’t want it to be a marathon. There’s a timeline. You have other things to do. We want to move it along.

In other words, you don’t care. If you do care, you have a funny way of showing it.

Please, let the people who pay the taxes for your city to exist talk.

Later in the meeting, there was tension between some in attendance and a member of the council. It is unfortunate it came to that. But what do you honestly expect when a public discussion is clearly irrelevant?

The citizens of Centerville deserved better from their mayor and their council on Monday night. So did the issue.

Instead of running out the clock on Christmas, the city leadership should have fulfilled its role and led.

If those in leadership do not want to take tough positions or prefer to hide behind a recommendation from a city administrator, then perhaps a leadership role isn’t meant for them.

It seems the council and the mayor have forgotten who answers to who in this scenario. It will be interesting to see if time heals this divide or if residents of Centerville rise up and challenge the status quo at the election box.

The Iowa Standard is a free online news source so we can reach as many people as possible. But we need to raise money! We are asking our readers to help support us as a news alternative entering 2020. If you could, please consider showing a sign of support to The Iowa Standard by making a contribution here.  Or, you can use Venmo and make a contribution to @Iowa-Standard-2018. 

You could also send a check to:
PO Box 112
Sioux Center, IA 51250

Jacob Hall

Author: Jacob Hall