Posted Online: Feb. 15, 2014, 10:07 pm
Keith Meyer reflects on controversies, time on Davenport council
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By Rachel Warmke, firstname.lastname@example.org
Keith Meyer says his days in the political limelight are drawing to a close.
At 72, the longtime activist and former Davenport 3rd Ward alderman wonders whether the time was worth it.
"All my life, I thought I was going to change Davenport. That was my goal: to change city hall. I didn't do it; it didn't work."
Gazing off into space, he said, "I can't see where I was able to change anything. Everybody knows me, but that's no big deal, you know?"
The downbeat reflections seemed a bit odd, coming as they did in the wake of a clear victory over city hall: The city administrator, police chief and city attorney had just issued a written apology for discriminatory conduct of the police department toward Mr. Meyer, who is deaf; ordered special training for the department on issues related to the deaf; and paid Mr. Meyer $49,900.
But then, "odd" is a word often used in relation to Mr. Meyer, whose life is markedly different than many in politics.
In friends' eyes, Mr. Meyer, who lives in a rambling former nursing home set on seven acres overlooking the city, is a Renaissance man to the core — a relic of days when civil justice and public good took precedence over political slickness and groomed rhetoric.
But his unapologetic "tell-it-like-it-is" style and uncompromising approach to social reform isolated him among many fellow aldermen, and some constituents as well.
During a recent interview, Mr. Meyer wore an olive-colored sweater, his shoulder-length hair swept back and salt-and-pepper beard neatly trimmed. It was a marked contrast to how he is often seen around town, wearing scruffy work clothes with his long hair unkempt.
"I think the city of Davenport was very successful in labeling me as a kind of lunatic, crazy-type person," Mr. Meyer said. "And that was part of what the apology (by the city) was for me, you know — it's like, make these people apologize to me for this."
The road to Davenport
Born in 1941, Mr. Meyer grew up in Dows, Iowa, a small farming community on the Iowa River. His father owned an automobile service station, and his mother was bookkeeper at the local Chevrolet dealer. He said it was a "big 'God and Country' family," with nightly political discussions around the dinner table.
Diagnosed with meningitis at age 6, Mr. Meyer routinely traveled the 250 miles between home and an Iowa City children's hospital.
"I spent a lot of time in the hospital, more than you want to think about," Mr. Meyer said. "I had to learn how to speak, walk, talk all over again." Deafness and a speech impediment are the lasting legacies.
He attended the University of Iowa, including the Writers' Workshop, and received an undergraduate degree from Wartburg College. After getting a master's degree in social work from Florida State University, he was hired in 1969 as assistant director of Scott County's Department of Human Services in Davenport.
Five years later, he left to open a private residential treatment center.
"I put an ad in the paper that said, 'Wanted: Old Mansion, With Grounds. Under $100,000," Mr. Meyer said. That led to the purchase of the former nursing home, where he opened "1012 Marquette" as a youth center.
He closed the center three years later, paving the way for a slew of self-started businesses.
"Down through the years, I've had a bookstore, bed and breakfast, cafe, (venue for) wedding receptions and private parties, antique shop, art gallery," he said.
Through it all, Mr. Meyer attended city council meetings. In 1999, he thrust himself into a public debate over a merger between two local utility companies. He also was among those fighting against the controversial 53rd and Eastern mixed-used development project.
In 2001, he ran for 3rd Ward alderman on a platform of budget reform, opposition to garbage and storm-wall utility fees and ending the use of tax-increment-financing. He lost the primary election, but ran again in 2003, beating opponent John L. Frueh, 466 to 363.
Time on the council
Mr. Meyer got off on the wrong foot with fellow aldermen when at his first meeting, he presented each an original "Christmas carol" he wrote. He intended them to be humorous but one that wished the council's only black alderman a "black Christmas" sparked allegations of racism.
Then, city administrator Craig Malin said he had received complaints of workplace harassment from several city hall employees against Mr. Meyer. Mr. Malin declined to comment for this article.
Mr. Meyer denies any harassment occurred. "It wasn't true," he said. "But, still, it's the fact that people are threatened by people who are asking questions, have some knowledge."
Rough start aside, some people assess Mr. Meyer's tenure on the council as bringing positive changes.
"Keith liked to hold city staff accountable for their decisions, and he wanted to hold the city council responsible for their decisions," said 4th Ward Alderman Ray Ambrose, who served with Mr. Meyer. "Sometimes it wasn't pretty, but in the long run, he has made some pretty significant changes south of Locust (Street)," such as the clean-up of a ravine marred by illegal dumping.
"I never underestimated Keith Meyer, I'll tell you that," Ald. Ambrose said, chuckling.
Karen Anderson, 71, who has been at the forefront of the historical preservation movement in Davenport for 42 years, was a regular attendee at council meetings, and said Mr. Meyer was an alderman who always had the best interests of the city at heart.
She said, with his background as a social worker and ability to read lips and body language, "Keith knew the good guys and the bad guys long before they finished the trip down the aisle to the microphone."
His plentiful critics include Bill Boom, who ran against Mr. Meyer in the 2005 election, losing by just nine votes, 485-476. In 2007, Mr. Boom would seize the seat, winning 558 to 431.
Ald. Boom described Mr. Meyer as an off-the-cuff official who "didn't dress to the office that he held."
He likened Mr. Meyer's passion for local causes as personal battles to be won, with Mr. Meyer oftentimes "taking things into his own hands." Ald. Boom said he first heard of his predecessor during the 2003 election, when Mr. Meyer parked his pick-up truck in front of a bulldozer to protest a construction project.
He said council members received regular emails from Mr. Meyer about community issues that "created a lot of dysfunction on the city council. People talked me into running to try to level that out, and I think we've been pretty effective."
Clash with a neighbor and the city
After he was replaced by Mr. Boom in the 2007 election, Mr. Meyer returned home to tend his small vineyard. The wine he produces is sold in the Quad-Cities and Iowa City under the Black Lab Crossing label.
He remained largely out of the public eye until a dispute with a neighbor over a shared driveway led to his arrest in November 2012, on a misdemeanor charge of displaying a weapon. He was found innocent by a Scott County jury after a trial in which he represented himself.
During the trial, it emerged that a Davenport Police evidence technician, responding to a complaint at Mr. Meyer's home, had knocked softly on the front door so that he wouldn't be heard and wouldn't have to deal with Mr. Meyer.
Mr. Meyer, after a long post-trial exchange of emails with the city and police department about various matters, including the visit by the evidence technician, said he planned to file a lawsuit unless the city wanted to settle.
The city did.
After a further exchange of emails, mostly about the wording of the apology, the settlement's terms became public Jan. 13. In addition to the apology and $49,900 in cash, there was a pledge that police employees would undergo public service training relating to the deaf.
In an editorial, the Quad City Times, a sometimes critic, thanked Mr. Meyer for "accepting the settlement and apology and foregoing expensive litigation he most certainly would have won."
City attorney Tom Warner did not respond to a call for comment.
Davenport Police Chief Frank Donchez said the training required by the settlement lasts three hours and "consists of case scenarios and videos" and will be hosted by Deaf Iowans Against Abuse during an employee in-service this month.
He said disciplinary action was taken against the technician, but declined to say what it was.
Into the sunset
In November, Mr. Meyer took one more Quixotic ride in politics when he filed as a mayoral candidate against incumbent Bill Gluba. He said he ran only to avoid a one-man election, but which eventually included Phil Yerington, too. Mr. Gluba won overwhelmingly.
Mr. Meyer's days are calmer now — spent reading, working on a novel 10 years in the making and tending his winery.
Colleagues, disheartened by Mr. Meyer's perception of his time in politics, liken him to a cast of brilliant, eccentric, but misunderstood characters, including Sherlock Holmes, Doc Martin, Ayn Rand's character John Galt and Thomas Paine.
Mike Romkey, a Quad-Cities author and musician who is a long-time friend of Mr. Meyer, said he believes Mr. Meyer was elected as alderman for his independence and willingness to "stick to his guns," more so than his affiliations with any political group.
Mr. Romkey, who also is an associate managing editor at the Dispatch/Argus, said that in a society often concerned with "round pegs fitting in round holes and square pegs fitting in square holes, I don't think Keith was a shape that was like many other people."
"Davenport isn't going to name a street for Keith Meyer," Mr. Romkey added. "But I think Davenport has probably thought a lot about how they treat people because of Keith Meyer."
Even some of his allies grew wary of Mr. Meyer's ability to praise one day and criticize the next, Ms. Anderson said. But social graces aside, she said Mr. Meyer's brutal honesty and 'watchdog' mentality has won him a band of loyal followers.
"There always has to be a Keith Meyer," Ms. Anderson said. "There is always going to be that lightning rod that goes up and has enough sense of self to say, 'I don't care. ... I know I'm right, and I'm going to stand up and repeat it until something happens,'"
"He should never feel that he is a failure, because the truth is not what you accomplished, but the billion other horrible things you stopped from happening," she said.