By Melody Mercado, Des Moines Register
The Des Moines City Council started off its first meeting of 2022 with the official addition of its youngest and only person of color to the council.
Indira Sheumaker, 27, was sworn in as Ward 1 councilperson by her sister with a uniquely written oath dedicated to the city’s residents.
“I swear to work toward the abolition of all forms and purveyors of oppression,” Sheumaker said in a room full of supporters. “If I should break my oath to the people or if, for any other reason, the people wish to reclaim this power, my status shall be nullified and my power shall be subject to reclamation by the masses.”
The oath, Sheumaker told the Des Moines Register, was written in collaboration with community organizers with accountability in mind.
“I ran saying that I am going to be accountable to the people and so I wanted to have a specific piece of that accountability that I could present,” she said. “It’s … probably the most important thing to me that I made that statement today.”
Sheumaker’s first action as Ward 1 councilperson was to vote “no” on the reappointment of various city staff, including City Manager Scott Sanders. Sheumaker has been vocal since the beginning of her campaign of her desire to see Sanders and Des Moines Police Chief Dana Wingert fired from their positions.
Sheumaker was the single “no” on the reappointment vote, a reoccurring theme for the council member, as she challenged numerous items on the council’s agenda, which included the development of a new downtown park and the purchase of bomb squad equipment.
Downtown park includes plans for private security but no public restroom
The City Council voted 6-1 Monday to approve the rezoning and a leasing agreement for a new public park downtown, with Sheumaker, left with concerns about the park’s proposed operation, the lone dissenting vote.
The park, which is being developed by EMC Insurance Cos., will be located on a .4-acre space at 701 Walnut St. into downtown Des Moines.
The construction of the park, which will include basketball and pickleball courts, ping pong, a bags course and tables with painted chess and checker boards along with “play mounds” for young children, will be paid for by EMC and leased to the city at a rate of $39,000 for the next 10 years.
Although Sheumaker admitted to liking the idea of having a public park downtown, she raised concerns over the lack of public bathrooms and EMC’s ability to allow private security to “police” the space when necessary.
A representative from EMC said the company’s private security would have no power to write tickets or issue citations, but would be charged with calling Des Moines police if there was an emergency or conflict on the park’s grounds.
Sheumaker said the arrangement gave her concerns over the possible criminalization of “un-housed” residents and people of color that might pass through the area.
Several residents expressed similar thoughts on the project, with many also wondering why EMC did not include plans for a public bathroom at the proposed park, to which the EMC representative said the company did not include it in the plans because the small size of the park did not require the inclusion of a public bathroom.
“Aside from adults that might use the park, a kid has got to go to the bathroom once every two hours … that’s something you might have glossed over,” Des Moines resident Bridget Pedersen said Monday.
Ward 3 councilman Josh Mandelbaum echoed that the lack of public bathrooms in public parks, and downtown in general, was a problem, but acknowledged their cost as a major hurdle, claiming public bathrooms can cost as much as $500,000 to construct.
Despite the concerns, the council voted to move forward with the project, with Sheumaker, calling the use of private security being a dealbreaker, being the lone “no” vote.
“There’s just a piece of that that was just non-negotiable for me, and that is the further criminalization of people — specifically, what it’s going to mean for houseless people,” she explained. “I can’t take that oath and then say I’m willing to sacrifice this piece to get a nice park downtown.”
More on EMC’s plans:Bags, pickleball, chess and more: See first plans for downtown Des Moines’ newest park
Sheumaker calls for special meeting to address winter crisis for the homeless
The new Ward 1 representative also requested a special meeting this week to “hopefully” take action against the eviction of homeless camps in Des Moines.
Sheumaker presented several issues she says she found while surveying several homeless individuals and camps over the weekend in Des Moines. She said her goal was to find out if various initiatives by the city’s Homeless Coordinating Council were successful in getting people off the streets.
Sheumaker said many of the homeless individuals she spoke with said they don’t feel comfortable staying at Central Iowa Shelter & Services, which is located downtown. She also said that homeless individuals told her that they had not been in contact with the city’s street outreach team about the weather amnesty.
Under weather amnesty conditions, according to Central Iowa Shelter & Services, no one is turned away from shelter. The system goes into effect whenever windchill values drop below 10 degrees and is effective for the 48 hours before and after the cold weather conditions.
As a result of those issues and others, Sheumaker said she hopes to take action at the special meeting “to get more than I think the other council members are willing to give.”
The meeting has yet to be scheduled.
Sheumaker said her goals for the meeting include:
Establishing a moratorium on homeless camp evictions during weather amnesty conditions.
Drafting plans for a winter shelter to open as soon as possible.
Creating a “better” emergency management plan for cold weather and climate disasters.
Melody Mercado covers Des Moines city government for the Register. Reach her at [email protected] or Twitter @melodymercadotv.