Ames City Council talks policy goals following death of Iowa State student


Mayor of Ames John Haila listens to Ames resident Nitin Gadia on the topic of the Campustown Plaza concept at the City Council meeting on Tuesday evening. 

Ames City Council Council members are taking a close look at issues including homelessness, mental health and violence against women in the aftermath of Celia Barquin Arozamena’s death.

“There’s a lot of conversations that need to be had, and I hope that as a City Council and as a city staff we will help lead those discussions,” said Amber Corrieri, at-large representative on the Ames City Council.

The man accused of killing Barquin Arozamena was allegedly homeless and was residing in the woods adjacent to the golf course where police found her body.

He had a history of violence against women and was previously convicted of first-degree domestic abuse and assault as well as harassment and attempted burglary.

As a result of it being the most visible part of the suspect’s life, discussions of the case often go back to his homelessness, but Mayor John Haila said focusing too much on one aspect could detract from other issues raised by the killing.

“Homeless doesn’t equal a criminal or a murderer,” Haila said. “We need to really disconnect the two. I mean, it could be coincidental. There are people that are very, very upstanding people that really have had difficulties in life and find themselves to be homeless.”

However, he said they’ll still be looking at all angles and consulting with professionals and groups who have more insight into the matter to determine what course of action they’ll take, if any, regarding homelessness in Ames.

Haila said the suspect camping on private property complicated one aspect of the city disallowing homeless people from residing on that land.

“There’s research that needs to be done in terms of property rights,” Haila said. “Can a city just go in and remove people from property if the property owner doesn’t want them removed or doesn’t have an issue with it? That’s where I think we need to start — we need to go back, too, and ask staff and ask law enforcement and get legal opinions.”

Corrieri responded to that suggestion with caution, saying she’d like to hear from all sides, inviting a multitude of opinions into the conversation including human services organizations alongside law enforcement. Corrieri said it’s more important to look at reducing homelessness and helping those in need rather than dislocating them.

“If you were to speak with the leadership at our homeless shelter, the Emergency Residence Project, the statistics of the number of individuals and families that they’re serving on an annual basis is probably shocking to a lot of people knowing that Ames is a fairly affluent community,” Corrieri said. “And so I think we’re continually having discussions about how we make sure there are services available for low income individuals and families who need that support.”

According to the Emergency Residence Project’s website, the program provided emergency shelter to 671 people during the 2016-2017 fiscal year, serving over 6,600 meals in that time. Ames’ 2016 population was approximately 66,200, meaning over 1 percent of the community utilized the emergency shelter services offered to homeless individuals.

Corrieri said simply providing temporary housing isn’t enough to aid homeless individuals, who often have physical or mental issues inhibiting their ability to work, form relationships or even apply for government aid.

“When we talk about the homeless population, obviously mental health is a big factor,” Corrieri said. “Making sure that we have the mental health resources available to us in the community… is important in making sure that we’re meeting the needs of those people, but also recognizing that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent.”

She, alongside other members of the council, emphasized their primary focus is the well-being of Ames residents, saying safety is considered when implementing any new policy.

Tim Gartin, the City Council representative for ward two, talked extensively about the importance of ensuring that as many areas as possible throughout Ames are well-lit to dissuade would-be criminals from assaulting citizens.

“Our number one concern is to keep people safe: Particularly, the 35,000 students that parents entrust to us for safe keeping,” Gartin said. “We talk about this a lot, we think about this a lot, it’s our number one priority. We have an extremely close relationship with Iowa State on safety.”

Despite that, he said, there are numerous areas such as fields, forests and parks that can’t be illuminated as effectively as city centers and are thus more dangerous.

After Barquin Arozamena’s death, Ames may feel like a less safe place to its residents, especially women. In his open letter to the campus community, Iowa State Police Chief Michael Newton offered advice to students including traveling in groups and avoiding poorly-lit areas in an effort to encourage vigilance and safety amongst students.

These suggestions aren’t new, though — Iowa State Police have been advising students for years to take precautions while traveling, especially at night. That’s because many officials, including members of the City Council, believe this incident is isolated and not indicative of declining safety in Ames.

“I don’t think I’ve lost my confidence in the safety of our community by any means,” Corrieri said. “But I think it does shake my confidence, a little bit, in our judicial system and how we deal with people who have a history of crime, especially those with violence against women.”

Corrieri said she’d like to have a discussion with county and state officials, as she believes violence against women is an issue too large for the City of Ames to tackle on its own.

Council members have already been discussing the issues surrounding the death of Barquin Arozamena and said the path forward remains unclear. Allie Hoskins, a student serving as ex-officio on the council, said she’s been wrestling with the issues for the past few days, trying to figure out some course of action.

“I honestly don’t know [what to do],” Hoskins said. “I’ve been planning to talk to the mayor and the rest of council before our next meeting about some possible ideas… At the beginning of the year I really wanted to focus on campustown safety, especially at night when it feels more unsafe, but I don’t know moving forwards what I can do more about that.”

This uncertainty can be felt all the way up to the mayor’s office — although Iowa State officials began releasing statements regarding Celia Barquin Arozamena as early as Monday, Haila has not yet released his statement. According to Susan Gwiasda, public relations officer for the city manager’s office, the delay is partially due to the short amount of time Haila has served as mayor.

“Mayor Haila has been in office since January, so everything is new to him,” Gwiasda said. “Honestly, a situation like what has happened in Ames recently is really new to all of us. I think we all need a little time to process this and figure out what is the appropriate response.”

She then explained how, due to the fact that the mayor had never personally met Barquin Arozamena, a lack of response would be understandable.

“When the university president releases a statement, that makes sense,” Gwiasda said. “The students have all chosen to attend that university, they’re part of that family, they pay to be there. When you move to a community, it’s a little bit of a different situation. People come and go, and they’re transient and we don’t have their names always, we don’t have their numbers.”

Haila later confirmed he would be releasing an official statement on Thursday. He said his primary reason for waiting to release a statement was to allow those close to her to speak first.

“I hope this never ever ever happens again, but you’re never prepared for something like this,” Haila said. “No one ever said, hey, if someone ever gets murdered in Ames, here’s what you do. So you’re kind of learning as you’re going as well, too. So the fact that there hasn’t been an official press release, it’s just more or less trying to give a little space and let Iowa State be on the record, and we’ll certainly follow up on one too.”

While members of council want to make efforts to reduce violent crime, Gartin said it can never be completely stopped.

“I appreciate the fact that people want to find an answer so this never happens again,” Gartin said. “That’s not going to happen. It’s an unrealistic expectation. What we can do and what we should do and what we are doing now is we ask the question, what reasonable steps are available to us to ensure the safety of our citizens?”

City Council members shared their sympathy for Celia Barquin Arozamena and her family, saying they hope to find a way to prevent tragedies like this going forward.

“I just want the community to know that the leadership in this city is completely heartbroken and disgusted over the fact that something like this could happen, and we want to help lead those conversations and find solutions,” Corrieri said. “We need to do whatever is necessary to determine how we might be able to prevent this in the future.”