Immediately arriving in downtown Cedar Falls this Thursday evening you could see the excess of cars flooding every available parking space and parking lot within 2 blocks of Main Street. As soon as you stepped out of your car you could hear the festive music, chatting families and the trotting of horses hooves. The community was alive with holiday cheer as Cedar Falls residents enthusiastically took their children to meet Santa and tell him what they want for Christmas.
It was a bitterly cold evening but the fact didn’t deter any of the eager kids waiting in line, dressed in their warmest, head to toe in snow boots, snow pants, hats, gloves and rosy cheeks. Many of the kids broke out their best dance moves apparently not noticing the cold and waited patiently to tell the big man in the red suit that they had been good all year.
Santa’s Workshop at the corner of 4th and main is decorated to perfection as the evening was lit up with their beautiful lights. To the left of his cozy workshop stood a two story Christmas tree made entirely of Christmas lights that changed color nearly every other second. There was also no short order of lit up candy canes and wreaths to fully set the Christmas mood. To top off the extravagant scene every couple of minutes a horse drawn trolley filled to the brim with people trotted by the sight up and down Main.
The line was moving at a steady pace as each child stepped into the small workshop and timidly sat on Santa’s lap. One family in particular had to coax their four year old daughter, Nora Ernst, into feeling comfortable enough to let go of their hands and have a chat with the jolly man.
Nora, the daughter of Rachelle and Mike Ernst of Cedar Falls, finally got brave enough to tell Santa what she wanted for Christmas. “I like princesses,” she told him. “Well which princess is your favorite?” asked Santa. At this point Nora’s mom, Rachelle, had to step in and persuade Nora to reveal more.
After that it was plain to see that the problem was going to be to get Nora to stop talking to Santa. She continued with, “Ariel and Cinderella! I have a Cinderella pillow so I don’t need one of those. I like playing crafts with mommy, we have art time.”
Nora spent a few more minutes explaining to Santa that she would love puzzles and more crafts she can do with her mom. Then it was time to let the kids behind her in line have a turn but as Nora was getting off of Santa’s lap you could see an afterthought flicker through her head. “I put my letter in your mailbox outside to tell you too,” Nora said.
Once outside Rachelle and Mike spoke highly of the events that Cedar Falls puts in place during the holiday season. They also brought Nora down to Main Street for the live Nativity Scene that was held during the Holiday Hoopla. “It’s always exciting to get out of the house to do different things during this time of year, especially as a family. Christmas is a huge hit in our house so pretty much every opportunity to celebrate it is taken advantage of,” Rachelle said.
Mike followed up Rachelle’s comment by stating, “The atmosphere is the best part. It doesn’t feel like anyone is thinking about work or stress. They’re just enjoying this time with their kids.”
In the recent months the University of Northern Iowa, located in Cedar Falls, has had to deal with a controversial new social media app called YIK YAK. It started with various offensive comments, roughly three dozen, on this application that allows strangers within a certain area to communicate. However what sets it apart from other social media websites, is that YIK YAK is completely anonymous. There were various racists, homophobic, sexist and xenophobic comments posted on this website. Due to the nature of the app all of the postings were within a mile and a half radius of each other. The comments have offended many students, staff and community members who don’t believe the university should tolerate such behavior.
The issue came to the attention of many when acting UNI President Michael Licari released this statement, “On behalf of the entire university community, I call on those who have been making these posts to understand the impact of your actions and stop. “There are important members of our community who are deeply hurt by what you say and write. However, know that your thoughtless attempts to undermine the very fabric of our community when you speak hate under the cloak of anonymity will fail.” It continued to gain more and more attention as it made many local news outlets including KWWL News Channel 7, KCCI News Channel 8, The Des Moines Register and the Northern Iowan. What added fuel to the fire was that the comments came shortly after a Drake University student was arrested for using YIK YAK as a platform to post threats. He stated that, “Columbine will look like child’s play,” The offending student was Michael Zachary Crisp and is only 18 years old.
The University began standing up and showing the community that the comments were unacceptable. They created an annual event called the UNI Day of Solidarity rally. The rally was help outside Maucker Union on Nov. 6th. The rally was an effort on behalf of the University to stand up and stand together in the aftermath of the controversy surrounding YIK YAK. The event appeared to be a very emotional and uplifting experience as some of the crowd began crying. It was a chilly and windy day but the wind did not deter many. There was a solid turnout and you could feel that everyone there truly got involved with what was happening. A few students shared their heartfelt stories of racism and discrimination at UNI and faculty members passionately talked about what we can do as students and as people to stand up, do better and not let hurtful things like this happen again. Stephanie Logan from the College of Education was the main speaker at the event. She was charismatic and passionate about relying her message of respect not hate to the crowd. A chant was created that began with “we can” to which the crowd would reply “do better.” Children, students, faculty, professors and community members were all in attendance. Many are calling it an appropriate and meaningful action on behalf of the university. While at the rally public relations major Eva Garla was asked if she felt that UNI responded to the controversy appropriately. She replied, “Yes and no because all we ever saw about it was an e-mail. There was no signs, there was no posters, nothing on Facebook or Twitter.”
Many students at UNI have a very strong opinion over the YIK YAK controversy. Junior biology major Aubrey Hunter has a few thoughts on the matter. Hunter stated, “It made me uneasy because I haven’t seen anything like this so close to home and I hate that these people are giving UNI a bad name. I have friends who were deeply offended by the comments and I hope I never see this sort of thing again.”
The Iowa Department of Public Safety’s Division of Criminal Investigation held a news conference today, Thursday October 9th, 2014. New details were released in the controversial, multi-million dollar, Hot Lotto lottery ticket purchase from December 2010. The Iowa Attorney General’s office, in assistance with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, is pursuing this ongoing criminal investigation.
A lottery ticket worth at least $14.3 million was drawn on December 29th, 2010. However, officials went nearly a year without any legitimate claims. The ticket was purchased from a convenience store in Des Moines, Iowa. It wasn’t until two hours before the deadline to redeem the ticket on December 29th, 2011 that a claim for the prize came forward. New York attorney, Crawford Shaw, showed up to claim the award on behalf of an investment company located in Belize. However, after officials started digging and investigating in January he surrendered the claim and the jackpot was forfeited. Shaw claimed the surrender was to avoid anymore controversy. The DCI has been working the case since late 2011 and has pursued a number of various leads. “We’ve developed a lot of good investigative information, its led us to pursue some additional leads in the Houston, Texas area. But before we can tie everything together and before we can really figure out the full story behind this case, we need to identify that ticket purchaser,” Jobes says. This lead came from an anonymous tip located in Canada. It wasn’t until after they were determined to not be a suspect and were granted immunity that they fully cooperated. Before the entire story can be discovered the identity of the ticket purchaser needs to be revealed. This case became a hot topic so instantly because it is illegal to falsely or fraudulently claim a lottery ticket. Also because officials are under a deadline, the investigation had to move quickly due to the statute of limitations. In this case, the statute of limitations was three years and it begins at the last act of fraud that occurs. However, due to the lack of consistent information it is uncertain when that act occurred.
Dave Jobes the assistant director for the Iowa department of Public Safety’s Division of Criminal Investigation spoke at the news conference. It was decided to release the surveillance video from the Qwik Trip store where the lottery ticket was purchased. The video shows several angles of a man dressed in dark clothing. When asked if there was additional footage of the purchaser outside the store or with a vehicle, Jobes replied that he could not answer that do to the ongoing nature of the case. He did state, “We’ve reached the point in the investigation where it’s important to get help from the public to identify the original ticket purchaser.” There will be a survey the public can fill out if the person is recognized. Officials are also asking for the cooperation of the media in order to share the video and link and reach as great an audience as possible.
There was a second claim to the lottery ticket that didn’t come forward until much later into the investigation. Des Moines native, Lucas Hernandez, claimed that he purchased the lottery ticket but that the store clerk switched it with another. He has tried to persuade attorneys to take on his case but to no avail. The officials also see no credibility behind his Hernandez’s statements and have dismissed his story.
Crawford Shaw has agreed to fully cooperate with the investigation. Although all of the money from the claim has been forfeited, the authorities are obligated to discover if fraud occurred by attempting to redeem the jackpot they did not have a lawful claim to. This may prove to be different as the investigation presses forward but the authorities are trying to discover what happened to the original ticket purchaser. The original ticket purchaser would be the owner of the ticket and it is unclear if they lost it or if it was stolen from them. The investigation is operating under the assumption that the attempt to redeem the ticket was not by the owner of the ticket.
The public now play a large role in the case. The most important factor of the investigation is finding the original ticket purchaser to discover the truth behind the story. Jobes stated, “We simply don’t know how they are. We don’t know if they are a victim, we don’t know if they are a participant, we just don’t know at this point. And we can’t answer those questions until we get some additional leads and we get a better understanding of who that person was.”
Reading a textbook or listening to a lecture is nothing like experiencing it in real life and what better way to learn than to dive right in and take a hands on approach? That is exactly what happened in one University of Northern Iowa classroom. Anelia Dimitrova’s Advanced Reporting students have spent Fall Semester of 2014 running through Cedar Falls, finding stories, chasing quotes and becoming journalists. Along the way the class developed new skills that will help them in their future careers.
A great example of the exciting opportunities the students of Advanced Reporting were given, is the experience they had helping KWWL News Channel 7 on November 4th, election night. Each of the students volunteered to aid the news station report the election results from each individual county. All of the students were given respective counties and were in charge of researching the up to date polling calculations. It was important for the numbers to be accurate because they were to be displayed for thousands of people and one mistake can seriously damage a news outlets credibility. Each county may have more than 10 elections to cover. The newsroom grew tense as more and more results started coming in from all over the country. There were anchors, reporters and technical support frantically hustling around the newsroom to create the best coverage possible. It was an intimidating atmosphere but exciting to be gaining such hands on, valuable life experience. It was very rewarding because as you watched the Channel 7 reporting the results you felt that you had contributed to something bigger.
The Advanced Reporting class also helped the students step out of their comfort zones. For example, on September 8th, 2014 the students took trip to Hansen Elementary School to observe the Cedar Falls School Board Meeting. Upon arrival the class immediately met school board member Joyce Coil and spoke with her about her thoughts on the upcoming bond referendum. She discussed with the recent renovations to Hansen Elementary, as well as the plans for the elementary schools and new high school if the bond were to pass. The students then received a tour of the newly remodeled Hansen Elementary School Principle, Mrs. Tara Estep. The school board meeting started at 7:00 with consent of the agenda and any public comments. They continued to talk about the secretary’s financial reports, the student board member report and other matters. After the meeting, the reporting class spoke with the senior class president of the local high school as well as school board member, Dr. Doug Shaw, about how they felt about the potential bond. It is a great learning experience to get our of your comfort zone and be persistent in order to get the necessary quotes for your story.
Another instance of the Advanced Reporting Class’s hands on experience from the semester dealt with the collaboration with the UNI Video Production class. With their partnership the students were able to take the stories they had created and report them on live UNI TV and then see them played later on the Cedar Falls Utilities local access channel. The students were given the opportunity to work the camera themselves, anchor behind the desk or report from a discussion panel. To see all of the behind the scenes action that goes into one of their productions was an exciting chance. The importance of being prepared was not to be downplayed. There was not always a prompter on which to rely. However, the leg work that the students did in order to put together their stories gave them the appropriate knowledge to fill the segments.
On Tuesday September 9th, 2014 the community of Cedar Falls, Iowa was faced with a tough decision, that split the community with many sides of opposition. On that Tuesday residents were asked to vote yes or no on a bond. This bond would pay for the construction of a new high school, new elementary school, and for renovations on two existing elementary schools. The $118 dollar bond shook the community and stirred up two sides to the issue. The residents who would have liked to see the bond pass felt that the increase in property taxes were worth the benefits that would come for the kids in the Cedar Falls school system. However, the opposition did not feel that way. They believed that the amount proposed was too great with not enough transparency.
Judd Saul, an active spokesperson for the opposition group “Vote No on the 9th is an advocate for voting down the proposed bond. He speaks very frankly and openly regarding the issue because he believes it would be detrimental to the community. Saul feels that the amount that is being asked for is too great a number for many of the Cedar Falls citizens. Over the past two years property owners have seen inflation in their homes property value. For example, Judd Saul’s own home has increased by $30,000 in the last three years with no improvements or added value. By inflating a home’s property value you are therefore increasing that property’s taxable valuation. To put into perspective Judd Saul stated, “With that increase and the increase if the bond passes it is going to be between a 20-25% increases in our property taxes.” The group “Vote No on the 9th” believes there are other alternatives to pass such an expensive bond. For example, it has been pointed out that Cedar Falls has a one cent option tax, which is a penny tax on every purchase made in the city limits of Cedar Falls. One cent goes to roads and one cent goes to schools. Saul stated that, “Per year on average that brings in 5 million dollars a year. So there is extra revenue coming in besides our regular tax dollars, besides our regular federal dollars, besides the state dollars, a regular 5 million dollars that goes just towards our school buildings and maintenance. According to our math and how we reason it is that we say why don’t we look at other options? Save up a good portion of that over a couple of years fix all of the elementaries, build a new elementary school and do what it takes.” The bottom line for the opposition is the cost of the bond and the lack of transparency they believe was coming from the board. It has been discovered that the $87 million that was being asked for to build the new high school is above and beyond what other cities in the area are spending on their new high schools. According to Saul, “Ankeny built a new high school with 280,000 square feet for 50 million bucks for their new high school. Iowa City built a state of the art, everything they’re talking about, Iowa City built a new high school, same square footage and more acres than what we are doing here in Cedar Falls for 44 million. Cedar Falls is asking for $87 million.”
Dr. Andrew Pattee, superintendent of the Cedar Falls school district has also spoken out regarding the bond. He has described the need for renovations, improvements and construction of new facilities for the students of Cedar Falls. He also breaks down the process the school board went through when deciding on a course of action for the community, “We have community based facilities group committee that had reviewed all the information, we asked our consultant to come up with options that we could present to our community. We presented out at nine different presentations to all of our staff to ask for their feedback. We looked at a variety of options to come to a conclusion; we then went out to our community as a whole through community forums and asked our community to weigh in. What are your thoughts, what do you believe is most important as we move forward based on these variety of options. ” When the final conclusion on the bond was decided the school board pushed ahead with the process. When Pattee was asked why there is a sudden push to revamp the schools he answered, “We’re a district of about 5,000 students k-12. We have had a consultant the last 10 years do a study to look at where our growth looks like and what our past growth looks like for our students and people coming to the community. And they’ve been very accurate with their studies the third study 2 years ago showed that we anticipate having 900 students coming into our district in the next 10 years. That means we will be approaching 6,000 students. That’s one of our biggest challenges as we look at capacity.”
On September 8th, 2014 there was a Cedar Falls school board meeting at Hansen Elementary School. When speaking with school board member Dr. Doug Shaw after the meeting regarding the bond he was asked whether he thought there would be a strong backlash if the vote were to pass; he replied that, “I would hope that if it passes that people will accept that that is what happened. What I really hope will happen is that if it passes that the people who had objections will make sure to let us know exactly what they’re concerned about so we can work it out.” Shaw spoke about the face that the population will not change simply if the bond is voted down. He believes action will have to be taken soon. He stated that his hope for after the vote is, “I think things are getting uncomfortably heated and I want to go back to us being a big family again so I’m looking forward to that.”
On that Tuesday, September 29th, 2014 the bond for $118 million was voted down. There were 10,003 people who turned out to vote on the issue, 4,218 voted yes for the bond and 5,788 voted no. The Facebook page “Vote No on the 9th CF” posted after the unofficial votes came in. They wrote, “We would like to thank everyone who got out and voted. We would also like to thank everyone who helped turn out the vote. WE did it. I hope this sends a clear message to the CF School Board. We want fiscally responsible planning that does not endanger the homes of senior citizens. We are all in this community together.”
Cedar Falls, Iowa, with a population of 39,260 people, this community is expanding and becoming a thriving place to call home. Cedar Falls is also the home to the University of Northern Iowa. As of 2014 there are 11,928 students enrolled at UNI. The university has a large impact on the community and surrounding neighborhoods. Many Cedar Falls residents do not see that impact as a positive thing. A task force was called in to action at the request of the city council in order to survey the impact of single-family homes being converted into rentals. It is believed by some that the need for rentals for UNI students is putting a negative image on the character of many Cedar Falls neighborhoods, specifically in the R-1 and R-2 zones. If necessary the Single-Family Conversion Task Force are prepared to recommend legislation that will help improve these conditions.
The City Administrator of Cedar Falls, Richard Mcalister, spoke about how the task force has come to be. He stated about why the task force is in existence, “Generally the city council had been fielding complaints from single-family homeowners that lived in various neighborhoods over a long period of time, I am going to say it is over a decade of time, that their neighborhoods had been declining. That the rental properties had grown in numbers in their neighborhoods and the level of maintenance of the properties and the behavior that was taking place on the properties were not indicative of what they felt a single-family neighborhood should be.”
Mcalister describes the decisions the city has made in the past regarding the same issues. The College Hill Overlay Group was a neighborhood group displeased about the amount of garbage, partying, and density of people. The group solicited the city council to change ordinances and restrictions in a particular area around the University of Northern Iowa’s campus. Due to their efforts the overlay district is now legally defined by a number of blocks that have their own set of zoning restrictions.
Mcalister also spoke about another way that the city of Cedar Falls is attempting to take control of their neighborhoods is through the Landlord Accountability Act. This act is a designed to keep the landlords of Cedar Falls responsible for their properties and accountable to those that rent from them. A points system has been put in place in order to track any violations that may occur on a property. For example, over occupancy in a unit will result in a collection of 5 points. A noise ordinance violation will also result in a landlord being given 5 points. If an accumulation of fifteen points occurs that those occupants may be evicted and a suspension on that particular landlords renting permit.
The Single-family Conversion Task Force has been meeting generally every 2 weeks for almost a year. It is composed of representatives from landlords or realtors, owner occupied homeowners, the University of Northern Iowa Residence Halls and more. The members have been studying the issue a great deal while collecting large amounts of information. They have then made several recommendations for the City Council. When asked what some of the different codes that may be going into place due to the task force Mcalister replied, “For a number of years the city council has said that we will enforce codes on the basis of a complaint or if it was a health safety issue. Even though we have on the books code that has minimum maintenance. The task force suggested that we clearly enforce those maintenance requirements and the council has adopted or endorsed that recommendation.”
In an interview with Anelia Dimitrova of the Cedar Falls Times, Fire Chief John Schilling speaks about the controversial issues surrounding the Single-family Conversion Task Force. He spoke in regards to what he as the fire chief and the fire department due to help keep the rental and family owned properties of Cedar Falls safe and in good condition. Schilling believes that it comes does to the different ideals that people have about what they believe is proper living situations. That may be differences in cleanliness, fire or life safety issues. However, when it comes to rental properties Schilling looks at rental properties as a commercial business and should be treated as such. He compares owning a rental property to owning a business such as Walmart. Schilling believes that when someone is on your property you should be responsible for whatever may happen to them. He stated, “The fire department and the public safety services is another form of insurance. We make sure that people adhere to the codes that we’ve set that we’ve taken to the city council and said this is a good set of codes that is going to maintain the health, safety welfare of the people that live in the city and this is what we feel is going to make people safe.”
The issues that the Single-family Conversion Task Force are collecting information about has sparked the attention of University of Northern Iowa students. There are some who are worried that the effects of new codes or regulations will effect them in a negative way. Twenty year old, Elementary Education student Taylor Timp, stated, “My biggest concern is the rule about how many of the non related people can live in one house. I think that that would put a stigma on the University and make it very hard for students like me to find the right housing.”