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Indira Sheumaker, city councilmembers find common ground among conflicts

In the March 7 meeting of the Des Moines City Council, Indira Sheumaker cast the sole vote against approving the purchase of 11 replacement police vehicles.

While Sheumaker said that she has common ground on police reform with a couple of her colleagues, this wasn’t the last time she would be the only dissent on funding for law enforcement. On March 21, she cast the only vote against the city budget because it increased funding for the Des Moines Police Department. On April 18, she voted against a roughly three-month extension of a short-term security contract.

“I just can’t vote on police funding,” Sheumaker said in an interview. “I ran on defund the police, I still believe in it. I still think that there are better uses for a lot of the funding that we do spend on police.” 

At-Large council member Connie Boesen said she has advocated for the expansion of a mental health crisis team that responds to calls.

“I’m saying we can rethink how we do public safety,” Boesen said. “But I definitely do not support, or think that you can get rid of police.”

Sheumaker used to attend city council meetings as an activist protesting police brutality, and she said the council did “everything it could” to silence them. She said that after she was sworn in to the Ward I council seat in January, there was “almost no trust” between her and other council members at the beginning. 

“Now it’s like, what do we do, now that she’s up here and has the rights and privileges or a city councilperson?” Sheumaker said. “And then also, I’m coming in, extremely skeptical, and extremely guarded, and ready sort of to be shut down because I’m used to that.”

Ward III councilmember Josh Mandelbaum said that since George Floyd’s murder in 2020, the council has seen “essentially the same cohort of folks speaking for a protracted period of time.”

“That’s not always the most effective way [to cause change],” Mandelbaum said. “But I’m also not sure that changing council action is the main point of those comments either.”

Mandelbaum said that he thinks the public “very much influences city council decisions,” but that it’s very rare for a public commenter to change the course of the meeting. He said that to make decisions, council members need to think about information before the meeting, and that information received at a meeting can lead to future action. 

“Just because you’re coming to the meeting does not mean that we’ll just do everything you want because you’re there,” Boesen said. “Because we hear from people from different forums.”

Sheumaker said that she is currently working on creating a peoples’ council within Ward I that could expand to other wards. 

“The goal is to get feedback at the level that people can really have that input that doesn’t exist right now,” Sheumaker said. “To say directly that this is what my constituents said because we have an organization of hundreds and thousands of them. That’s the goal. But we’re just sort of building blocks right now.”

Boesen and Mandelbaum separately said that they have had discussions with Sheumaker before her election. 

“I think we had engaged, we hadn’t come to agreement on some things, but we’d at least talked through a number of issues,” Mandelbaum said. “That was a little bit of a foundation for us.”

The role of council rule changes 

A rule requiring a second was one of a series of changes to the city council rules passed during Sheumaker’s second meeting on the council in January. Sheumaker said she doesn’t disagree with the rule requiring a second but said that “at the time it felt very targeted.” She said initial mistrust may have led to some of the rule changes made by the city council in January. 

Boesen and Mandelbaum said that they had never previously served on another board that didn’t require a second for a motion. Boesen said that council members have the same opportunity to speak as they did before.

“We were talking about trying to do a virtual hybrid-type thing for Zoom, and so I started reviewing all the rules again,” Boesen said. “I suggested, and I turned them in like in December to change the rules to go [to an hour of time to speak], which I had supported from [the] get go, for public speaking, and that we would add a second, which I felt was just normal course of how you run a meeting.”

Since her election, Sheumaker has made several motions that would have opened items on the agenda to public comment that have failed without a second, among other failed motions.

“It’s happening a little bit less often because I’m making less motions,” Sheumaker said. “Sometimes I will even bring something up to talk about it but I won’t make a motion on it because I know that I’m not going to get any buy-in from that.”

One of the other new rules requires council members to gain the support of a majority to take more than four items off the consent agenda. Boesen said that the council has never had a member take off more than four items off the consent agenda. Mandelbaum said that the rule would keep a member from stalling the meeting. Sheumaker thinks that this was intended for her.

Boesen also supports a rule change that removed the policy that allowed residents to request items to be removed from the consent agenda. Mandelbaum said that this rule conformed with current practice by the council.

“Well, first of all, I question how many things should be pulled off a consent item agenda, and it should be a council member that pulls it off,” Boesen said.

Sheumaker opposes both of these rules. 

“I think it does run into difficulties when there are five items that you want to talk about that are important,” Sheumaker said. “…I just want to give people the opportunity to say their piece.  So if someone sends me things on five consent items, I can’t pull all five off. I have to pick and choose. So I think it’s a little restrictive.”

‘An oversight solution that actually has some power’

Mandelbaum, Sheumaker and Boesen all support the implementation of third-party oversight of the police. Mandelbaum said that whether the board gets the necessary four votes for a community review board will depend on the specifics of what is proposed. Sheumaker said the council will work on the board during a work session in May. 

Sheumaker said she wants an oversight solution that has power but that state law makes it difficult to look at complaints and discipline for police officers. She said the mayor put forward an accreditation process in response to the request for an investigation. Mandelbaum said that the lines between the accreditation and investigation have been blurred. 

“But [the accreditation] is just kind of like, is our department up to snuff, are we meeting the standards of police departments, versus really looking into the specifics [that] community is worried about, like racial profiling, like deescalation practices, like use of force, things like that,” Sheumaker said. 

‘However that comes about, I’m going to be supportive of that’

Around early February, KCCI reported that Sheumaker said, “We need to build a slate for this next election and get these mother f****** out of here” in an online meeting. 

Sheumaker said in the interview with The Times-Delphic that in order to improve relationships and make progress, she doesn’t want to call out any other city council members. However, she said that she wants to work with city council members who share her priorities on certain social issues. 

“We still work for kind of the higher classes of Des Moines,” Sheumaker said. “The developers and the bigger business owners, and [we] aren’t addressing the needs of the most marginalized in our communities. So if we could start doing that, I think that would be helpful, and however that comes about, I’m going to be supportive of that. But if anyone is looking to run, they can reach out to me.”

While Boesen said that Sheumaker’s remark in the online meeting was disappointing, Mandelbaum and Boesen both said they are committed to working with her. 

“We’ve got way too many things to do in the city and make things better,” Boesen said.

Sheumaker said that she has found common ground in the council on issues of increasing the affordability and density of housing, but they may differ in “how we get there.” She also said she has common ground with a couple of other members on improving police oversight and accountability. Mandelbaum said that he and Sheumaker both prioritize housing and counteracting climate change, and Boesen also pointed to housing as an area of agreement with Sheumaker.  

“…Part of being effective in the job is figuring out where the priorities overlap, and then how you mesh so you can work together on shared priorities, while maybe disagreeing on other pretty fundamental issues,” Mandelbaum said. “And not having those disagreements spill over and impact your ability to work on shared priorities. And that’s not always easy.”

The other three Des Moines City councilmembers were unavailable for comment, declined to comment or did not reply to requests for comment. 

This article was corrected to reflect that The Times-Delphic reached out to three councilmembers aside from those quoted in this article, not four: Joe Gatto, Carl Voss and Linda Westergaard. It was also corrected to reflect that the new city council rules were proposed during Sheumaker’s second regular meeting on the council, not her first, and that Sheumaker said initial mistrust between her and other council members may have led to some of the rules changes.

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