The Ottumwa Courier

March 29, 2013

State ombudsman releases findings in Blakesburg dispute

Report says that wrongdoings resulted from City Council’s failure to object to actions of former mayor

Courier Staff Writer

BLAKESBURG — If small-town Iowa residents aren’t happy with behavior at City Hall, they need to hold their city council responsible, not just blame the mayor. Especially when the mayor usually doesn’t vote.

That’s part of the message sent to Blakesburg this month from the state of Iowa troubleshooter. They were reviewing a now-resolved Blakesburg Historical Preservation Society situation involving illegally held meetings.

A simplified, overly short synopsis: In the spring of 2011, verbal shots were fired back and forth in letters, public meetings and via the media. City officials notified the head of the society that some historic artifacts appeared to be missing. They’re not missing, said society members, they’re in storage until we get a better place to put them. Give us the items, city officials said. They don’t belong to the city, said society members, we are their guardians. Fine, said the city, give us the keys to your museum. Why should we do that? asked society members. We own the museum building; we’re evicting you, threatened the city.

One letter from the mayor asked a society leader to stop volunteering in that capacity and to stop volunteering in other things that would benefit the city of Blakesburg.

 In fact, conversations and media interviews with society members tended to blame the mayor at that time, Randy Burton, for all their woes. The State Ombudsman’s office issued a ruling that in a sense says, “Think again.”

The mayor in many Iowa towns does not get to vote. They help keep the meetings in order and can provide information or suggestions. In the event of a tie vote, they do get to cast a ballot. So for several of the wrongdoings the ombudsman’s office considered valid, they wrote that it was the City Council that did not object to the behaviors.

For example, a couple of council meetings at City Hall became crowded with supporters of the Blakesburg Historical Preservation Society. They asked once that a larger venue be obtained. The mayor refused, but it the council did not object to the refusal. The second time it happened, the mayor had allegedly told the public he’d arranged for a larger venue, the community center, if necessary. Before the session started, he went out to see that there were additional citizens looking to enter the meeting room.

“He failed to move the meeting. None of the council members objected to this failure,” wrote the ombudsman in report.

When making complaints to the state, Patty Rowland of the BHPS said that the mayor in 2011, Burton, did not inform council members of legal correspondence allegedly delivered to him on or about the months of June, July, August and September 2011. Again, the report states, “Once this was discovered, council members did not object to this type of behavior.”

Other founded complaints included a May 11, 2011, council meeting in which evicting the museum tenants was decided. In violation of Iowa law, no public notice was published to announce that this “special session” would be taking place.

Elizabeth Hart, assistant citizens’ aid with the Iowa Ombudsman’s Office, did not specifically have negative comments about the Burton. Nor did she disparage the actual decisions to ask for artifacts, put a city commission in charge of historical preservation or kick the society out of the museum.

The focus instead was on whether these decisions were made in accordance with Iowa law. The report says most of the complaints are supported by witnesses. To verify some of the claims made, she spoke by phone with, among others, the “new” mayor, Jason Dyers, her report states.

“I wanted some assurance from the city that these situations would not happen again,” the state official writes. “Therefore, I made the suggestion that the City Council ... take classes conducted by the Iowa League of Cities entitled The Municipal Leadership Academy. These classes included topics concerning open meeting, open records and municipal law and a course in ethics.”

The Blakesburg City Council completed the coursework on Feb. 20, the state report says.

It concludes, “I consider this matter rectified, and I will close this case accordingly.”

The initial complaint to the ombudsman was made in August 2011. The letter to Rowland detailing the findings and the suggested remedy is dated March 13, 2013.