Connecting after COVID

Constituents in Cars flips the town hall script

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious
Webster County Supervisor Niki Conrad speaks with a constituent at Constituents in Cars, a new COVID-19 adapted effort aimed at keeping citizens and their elected officials connected.

As some elected officials and citizens alike found themselves relatively stifled by coronavirus precautions, two local organizers found a new way to conduct public discourse in public.

With COVID-19, it’s more than just difficult to get people in the same room, said Fort Dodge resident and Constituents in Cars organizer Demarcus Carter — it’s dangerous.

But after weeks of posting memes on social media to encourage voter registration ahead of the upcoming election with partner and co-organizer Sarah Small, the couple decided to take a new approach to civic engagement by making democracy more democratic again.

“Let’s flip it on its head,” Carter said, the result of brainstorming ideas to safely get people in the same place to make their voice heard before and at the election.

“Instead of the people coming to a room and sitting down and listening to our local leaders talk, let’s approach it with a Sonic or McDonald’s drive-thru model,” he said.

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious Webster County Supervisor Niki Conrad speaks with citizens as other elected officials make themselves available to anyone interested in chatting Tuesday evening at City Square Park. The new event, Constituents in Cars, aimed to negate the housebound effects of COVID-19 by flipping the script and giving anyone with concerns a chance to have one-on-one time with the appropriate representative.

So Tuesday, attendees at the inaugural event drove up to City Square Park, where moderator Judge Brown directed the right elected official to their window to hear their concerns. Among this week’s representatives present were: Webster County Supervisor Niki Conrad, Fort Dodge school board members Dan Altman and Stu Cochrane; Fort Dodge City Council representatives Neven Conrad, Lydia Schuur and Terry Moehnke; and state Rep. Ann Meyer, R- Fort Dodge.

“The issue when the pandemic started was how do you do the job,” Niki Conrad said.

After spending certain hours every day at the courthouse, Niki Conrad said she didn’t want her presence for the sake of being in one place to present a risk to the rest of the courthouse.

“I’ve always had an online presence, but it helps to talk to somebody face to face,” she said, differentiating between the pros of social media and some of its deficiencies that are often solved through face to face communication. “You can’t just go door to door and say ‘Hi, I’m your supervisor, what are your issues?’ because you’re going to put people at risk.”

In an election year, some elected officials and organizers are finding themselves in an unusual predicament, unable to use the tried and true in-person tools that have served them well in previous elections.

“Our best method: knock, knock, knock,” said Claudia Koch, vice chair of the Webster County Democratic Party, with her knuckles on her car door. “And we can’t do it.”

She’s hopeful that methods like this, conducted outdoors at a safe distance with fully-masked participation, will help bridge that gap this year and solve issues for folks at the local level, no matter their political affiliation.

“There’s a lot of representation here. Get something out of them instead of just standing around,” Brown encouraged, moderating a conversation that eventually shifted from cars to a large circle in the grass.

And what the first of perhaps many events lacked in size, it made up for in spirited conversation. Top of mind for most attendees was how children can safely return to school in less than three weeks and what can be done to stem the continued spread of COVID-19 among a population that won’t take masks seriously.

Meyer said that parents with serious concerns about putting their children back to in-person instruction this month should exercise their right to 100% online instruction, as she said 250 in the district have opted to do so far.

But she defended the mandate of at least 50% face-to-face learning that has been a flash point for Gov. Kim Reynolds, a percentage which she said District Superintendent Jesse Ulrich called “arbitrary.”

“I’d like to defend Reynolds because that was put in place by the legislature,” she said.

“Sometimes we overlook the fact that one size doesn’t fit all,” said Kim Motl, former county supervisor, concerned for her nephews going back to school soon. “We preach all the time that we want local control … but we want it until it doesn’t fit into our pocket or the way either party wants it.”

Cochrane noted that even the school board doesn’t have all the answers, and likely won’t until schools are simply back in session for a certain period of time. Though schools will mandate mask use with students, he said the situation is going to have a steep practical learning curve.

“If you think for a minute kids are going to keep their hands off each other and be able to maintain social distancing, I think we’re kidding ourselves,” he said. “We want to keep everybody safe, but we’ll be the first ones to tell you we’re going to have to play this by the seat of our pants.”

He called the situation a “no win” for anybody, with parents coming at the board from both sides of the back to school debate.

While he thought online-only classes were less productive, he feared that not offering online options would contribute to an outbreak of the virus.

“You can’t pretend you’re going to go back to our schools and be virus-free,” he said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Meyer also noted that the in-person classes are important to ensure children have access to meals and the social services that low-income families rely on from the system.

While masks will be mandated in schools, some citizens wanted to know when they’ll be mandated at a state, county or local level — something representatives were less excited to answer. Some voiced frustration that Iowans are barred from visiting the states or localities their grandchildren live in because of the state’s increasing COVID-19 infection rate.

“Public health is guidance, not a mandate,” Meyer said, stressing the importance of taking personal responsibility for wearing a mask.

Cochrane said enforcing the masks for students of all ages will be a challenge in itself, particularly with parents not serving as role models for the habit at home.

“Female students wearing spaghetti straps are sent home until they can correct their attire, so I’m not sure why wearing a mask would be any different,” Small said.

The kind of engagement Constituents in Cars generated was refreshing, elected officials agreed, even if there wasn’t always a consensus on the discussion itself.


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