The public revelation of a confidential meeting to resolve the membership dispute on the Civil Rights Commission is unraveling a last-ditch effort to settle the conflict out of court.
A possible compromise discussed at the meeting has since been rejected by several current and former commissioners, setting the stage for the yearlong controversy to be settled in court.
Last Friday, Darryck Dean, a mediator from the U.S. Department of Justice, led a confidential meeting between Davenport Mayor Mike Matson, City Attorney Tom Warner, Commission Chair Janelle Swanberg and former Chair Susie Greenwalt.
The session was held one day after Matson presided over a public meeting in City Hall’s Council Chambers between former and current commissioners and Civil Rights Director Latrice Lacey. After that Thursday meeting ended with broad consensus that the dispute is best resolved by a judge, Matson said he asked city attorneys to seek a resolution in court.
Friday’s meeting with Dean, a conciliation specialist from Kansas City, was a private attempt at the same goal: working toward a resolution for the ongoing membership dispute, which has gridlocked the seven-member commission and led to a long backlog of casework.
Participants in Friday’s session were asked to keep key details of the meeting confidential out of sensitivity to the mediation process. Due to Iowa’s Open Meetings Law, which prevents government bodies from meeting behind closed doors without public notice, most commissioners were excluded from the session.
But the secret was spilled at Tuesday’s regular commission meeting, where Greenwalt openly discussed the confidential session after being asked about it by former Commissioner Nicole Bribriesco-Ledger.
“I believe that we and the public deserve to have some answers,” Bribriesco-Ledger said before reading a prepared statement, which was addressed to Swanberg.
Greenwalt admitted the meeting took place, adding that she had discussed it with Lacey, Bribriesco-Ledger and former commissioner Helen Roberson.
Greenwalt also discussed the compromise solution, which she said was proposed by the mediator. Under the proposal, as explained by Greenwalt, all of the commissioners would resign and Matson would appoint two of the five commissioners currently seated and two of the four commissioners whose membership is disputed. The mayor would then have the discretion to fill the three remaining vacancies.
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“If one person says no, then the whole thing gets scratched,” Greenwalt said. “Otherwise, it’ll go to court.”
Bribriesco-Ledger rejected the compromise outright, an apparent kibosh on the mediation effort. "My decision is no,” she said at the meeting. “I'm not willing to resign.”
"I hate to hold up the commission, I really do,” Bribriesco-Ledger added. “But I think everything was done the wrong way, and I'm not willing to compromise that."
Now some who attended the confidential meeting think the mediation effort is over.
“It’s clear that the mediation process has been completely subverted,” said Swanberg.
Bribriesco-Ledger isn't the only opposition to the proposal. Richard Pokora, a commissioner who was not present for Friday’s confidential session, said he also doesn't support the compromise. “There have been significant issues raised by the former commissioners about the interpretation of city ordinances and the Iowa Code,” Pokora said. “I believe that the Department of Justice mediator solution really didn’t get to the heart of the problem.”
According to several participants, Friday’s confidential meeting involved a civil and professional discussion about how to resolve the membership dispute, a long-simmering controversy between commissioners whose terms expired or who were removed and who believe they remain rightful commissioners.
Matson said he was approached by Dean several weeks ago about a possible mediation effort, as the commission conflict had come to the attention of the Community Relations Service (CRS), a voluntary "peace-making" service through the U.S. Department of Justice. The commission response suggested to Matson that the mediation effort had halted. The mayor didn’t consider Friday’s closed-door session “secret.”
“I’m always happy to listen to people to see if there are any ideas to solve any problems,” Matson said. “A few people wanted to get together to talk, and the mediator offered to do that. I was happy to have that conversation.”
Dean said he was unable to comment. Assistant Davenport City Attorney Mallory Hoyt declined to comment.
As previously reported, the city’s permanent civil rights office has stayed open through the standstill on the seven-member commission, continuing to investigate and adjudicate cases related to alleged violations of civil rights in Davenport.
“We were coming to the table in good-faith to mediate this dispute,” Swanberg said. “The former commissioners were obviously not ready to do that. It appears to have been a waste of the mediator’s time.”
Graham Ambrose is the Iowa politics reporter for the Quad-City Times.