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Davenport City Council removes elected member for serial sexual harassment

Alderman Derek Cornette sits in his chair just before the hearing to remove him from office on Sept. 8, 2023.
Zachary Oren Smith
Alderman Derek Cornette before the hearing to remove him from office on Thursday.

Davenport city staff provided testimony, video and even voicemails painting a picture of the mistreatment staff suffered at the hands of Davenport Alderman Derek Cornette. City Council was receptive and removed him from office. But it's an open question whether the council can do that.

Last night, the Davenport City Council removed an elected alderman from office. The city attorney’s office argued that 7th Ward Alderman Derek Cornette showed an unacceptable trend of behavior, ranging from harassing female staff members to showing up to council meetings intoxicated and leaving offensive voicemails.

"To an elected official, apparently, all I deserve is to be harassed, demeaned and belittled," City Administrator Corri Spiegel said. "And this is not something I should have to do in public, in front of my bosses, in front of my staff, in front of the community. Intentionally, I use the pronoun 'we,' as I represent not only myself but also others in the organization who've endured similar deplorable experiences."

While Spiegel said she did not file a written sexual harassment complaint for fear of retaliation from Cornette, city Human Resource Director Alison Fleming said there were more than 10 complaints filed against the alderman.

“Alderman Cornette claimed to the media that he had talked to those two female staffers who were offended by his language and conduct and that he had apologized and made amends. Is that true?" Assistant City Attorney Brian Heyer said. "There are two empty workstations upstairs that I believe say, that’s not true.”

Fleming said that while this pattern of behavior would have led to the removal of a staff member, there was no process for dealing with an elected official.

In addition to testimony, several pieces of video and audio evidence of Cornette's behavior were played.

On May 3, body cam footage showed Cornette submitting to a breath test shortly after exiting a city council meeting. He told a Scott County deputy that prior to the meeting he'd had "a few shots." He then drove to the meeting. The deputy was trying to prevent him from driving home.

The test indicated his blood alcohol content was 0.072%. It's illegal to operate a motor vehicle with a BAC of 0.08% or more.

While he's not a voting member on the council, Mayor Mike Matson said he thought it was important for the council to sit with the alderman's actions.

"The question is, do you condone this behavior? Or do you not?" Matson said.

Cornett and attorney say reelection and the courts are on the road ahead

With his removal, Cornette will no longer be able to vote on the council or attend meetings in an official capacity. This year, he is up for reelection. The primary is on Oct. 10. The election is on Nov. 7. He claimed the whole meeting was retaliation for not "drinking the mayor's Kool-Aid," and said it wouldn't stop him from running.

"I'm not going to pull out. Why would I? The 7th Ward needs me," he said.

Reelection aside, Cornette might get his way in district court.

Back in 2017, Muscatine Mayor Diana Broderson was impeached. A 7-0 unanimous city council voted to remove her from office. It was called the "first impeachment in Iowa history." Broderson appealed to the courts.

District Court Judge Mark Cleve threw out the removal, saying it violated due process rights by having council members serving as investigators, prosecutors and judges — and by having an interest in the outcome of the removal. After the City of Muscatine lost its fight to withhold documents and transcripts, Clev found that the council had prejudged the outcome.

During Cornette's removal trial, his attorney Michael Meloy repeated that the proceedings "violated" Cornette's due process rights, echoing Judge Cleve's 2017 ruling.

Following Thursday's removal, Meloy referenced the Broderson case, telling IPR News that there's precedent and he plans to challenge his removal in district court.

When asked about the Broderson case, Matson said he would not speculate on whether the council's action that night would be swatted down by the courts. He said it was important for the council to take up Cornette's behavior with their colleague.

"I don't know if it will (withstand court review)," he said. "All I can do is call the hearing and the council votes. I won't speculate or do hypotheticals on what might or might not happen."

Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa