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The Elbert Files: City Hall steps up


“You can’t fight city hall” is an old saying that we know is not true. People do it all the time and win. 

But what about the next level? 

Can city hall fight state government and win when the issue is public safety? What about the federal government? When it becomes dysfunctional, can sensible local officials step in and provide effective guidance to protect the environment?  

I hope so, because several battles are already underway or in the planning stages here. It will be interesting to see how city hall matches up against the power of the Iowa Statehouse and the nation’s Capitol. 

On one front, rational leaders in Des Moines and Polk County are preparing to fill a gap created by lawmakers’ inaction on gun accessories. And they’re doing it at a time when Republicans are seeking to amend the Iowa constitution to prohibit virtually all limits on firearm ownership.

Earlier this month, the Des Moines City Council and the Polk County Board of Supervisors asked their staffs to draft gun ordinances prohibiting possession of high-capacity magazines and trigger activators that can turn standard firearms into weapons of war capable of killing many in a matter of seconds.
The requests came days after a disgruntled former employee of the city of Virginia Beach, Va., went on a rampage using high-capacity weapons to kill 11 city employees and a contractor who happened to be at city hall.  

In making the proposal, council members Josh Mandelbaum and Chris Coleman noted that the Virginia Beach killings occurred in a municipal building much like the one where the Des Moines City Council meets.  

Both expressed frustration, as did Mayor Frank Cownie, with Iowa laws that prohibit local governments from reigning in gun sales. Cownie recalled the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012. 

“We said never again” when 26 people, including 20 children, where killed by a deranged shooter, Cownie said. “Since then,” he continued, “there have been 2,086 mass shootings” with no new firearm controls. “That’s unacceptable,” the mayor said.  

But not to Republican state Sen. Jake Chapman, who pushed back, telling the Des Moines Register he would introduce new legislation aimed at closing loopholes that cities might use to control the sale of gun accessories.
Separately, Des Moines officials are also providing leadership on much-needed climate change actions.

At the same meeting where gun accessories were discussed, the City Council approved an ordinance that will require commercial buildings of a certain size to track energy and water usage. 

The goal is to use transparency to create wider awareness of resource consumption, with the expectation that it will lead to improved conservation. 
It’s one aspect of the city’s effort to provide climate guidance in a vacuum created when state and national agencies abandoned responsibility for the environment.    

Mayor Cownie is a longtime advocate of environmental awareness. 
Mandelbaum, who is an environmental lawyer, is nudging the city toward adopting a clean energy standard that would encourage MidAmerican Energy to reduce carbon emissions and retire coal plants.  

He would also like Des Moines to become a leader in protecting water resources by using green infrastructure to address stormwater runoff.
Specifically, Mandelbaum favors ordinances that require replacement of topsoil removed by developers, a move that would slow runoff during rainstorms. And, he said, laws creating buffer zones around streams will help reduce runoff from fields.

Returning to the gun issue, Mandelbaum said: “In an ideal world we would solve these issues at a state and federal level. But if they are not doing that, we should be doing what we can to show that there is support for solutions and do what we can to make things better for our community.”


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