Old Iowa City council had spunk

By Gregg Hennigan

IOWA CITY – Former Iowa City Mayor John McDonald died Wednesday at age 65 after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer.

We’ll have a story and the obituary in Friday’s paper.

McDonald was on the City Council from 1982-93. He was Mayor from 1984-85 and 1988-91, according to City Clerk Marian Karr.

McDonald’s tenure on the council was well before my time, but I’ve heard stories about how those councils in the late-’80s and early ’90s could be, depending on your perspective, pretty entertaining and at times divisive. 

There were some strong personalities with differing views on the council. I asked Darrel Courtney, who was on the council from 1986-93 and served as mayor, about this Thursday when we were talking about McDonald.

It was “always very verbal,” was Courtney’s polite way of describing the meetings. As mayor, McDonald had a calming effect and was great at building consensus, he added.

I went back and looked in our archives and found some support for this.

An April 1993 story looked at how the council would fill an open seat left by the resignation of Randy Larson. His resignation was significant, according to the story, because Larson was the “swing vote on a council that has been more polarized than most in the recent past.”

The story went on to quote then-City Manager Steve Atkins: “I think it’s fair to say that this council, more than others I’ve served, represents a greater diversity of issues and constituencies. And therefore the possibility of a split vote has loomed with some frequency.”

In January 1992, the council held a meeting to set its goals for the year. The meeting lasted six hours, and one of the main issues was the relationships between council members, The Gazette reported.

The article went on:

Teamwork was an issue the council pinpointed as important but difficult to achieve given the disparities in social and economic makeup of the group.

“We’re not racially diverse,” said Councilwoman Karen Kubby, “but we’re diverse in other ways.”

Council member John McDonald said council members led different lifestyles and therefore their paths didn’t cross during  day-to-day activities, which inhibited informal discussion and perhaps clearer interpretations of council members’ positions on issues.

Several council members cited that in years past, the council would meet at a bar after a meeting, giving members a level of social interaction now lacking between most of its members.

And later:

Several council members also reprimanded Kubby for what they deemed a “lecture” before the selection of the city’s new mayor Jan. 3.

Before nominations were made, Kubby expressed concern about the behind-the-scenes process that had occurred and stated that she hoped this much time and energy would be given to other important issues.

Courtney said he felt attacking the selection process without offering an alternative and in that forum was inappropriate and didn’t offer him the opportunity to respond.

“The comments you made before the major selection was a lecture. I wasn’t in a position at that time to respond because I could have lost votes,” Courtney said.

Kubby acknowledged that while her style hadn’t been the most appropriate, she couldn’t guarantee that she would never do it again.

“It wasn’t personal. It was a group criticism. You (Courtney) chose not to react because the risks were too high for you,” Kubby said.

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