The Ottumwa Courier

December 19, 2012

'Political bias’ argued at City Council meeting

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Accusations of political bias consumed the last City Council meeting of the year.

The Southern Iowa Labor Council requested the permanent reservation of the Jimmy Jones Shelter for its annual Labor Day event to allow for enough time in advance for planning purposes.

Councilman Mitch Niner questioned why this was never brought before the Parks Advisory Board. He also said this is not the first time the board has been purposely avoided.

Niner said there was a specific reason the item did not first go to the Parks Board.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, councilman,” said Mayor Frank Flanders. “There was no desire to avoid anyone. It just needed to be done. You need to know what you’re talking about.”

Parks Director Gene Rathje said no one ever told him to put the item on a Parks Board agenda.

“I think we’re all avoiding the issue, and that’s why it wasn’t it brought to park advisory? Because there may have been a little political interaction last year,” said Councilman Bob Meyers. “What’s wrong with postponing this until January and bringing it to a work session?”

Steve Siegel, president of the SILC, said Labor Day was founded by unions and it has always been a union event.

“Nobody avoided the park board on purpose as you’re alleging, Bob,” Siegel said.

Joe Rush, president of the UFCW Local 230, said if a politician shows up at the event and “decides to do something, it’s their legal right to do that. We can’t tell him not to. It’s a public park.”

At the Sept. 2 event, Siegel told the crowd that he would not allow state Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, to speak at the event.

Jan. 2 is the first day people can reserve shelters for 2013. During this year’s Labor Day event at the Jimmy Jones Shelter, a three-hour period featured nine Democratic political speakers.

Following Tuesday’s meeting, Niner said the City Council is a non-partisan group and he feels Flanders threw the councilmen in the middle of a political issue.

“Mark Chelgren and Blake Smith wanted to speak [at this year’s Labor Day event], but they refused to let them, and that’s fine. That’s their prerogative,” Niner said. “But by doing that, Chelgren has said he’ll be first in line to get the shelter on Jan. 2. It’s a political move.”

That’s correct, Chelgren told the Courier following the meeting.

“It’s supposed to be a non-partisan celebration for Ottumwa, and the unions decided to reserve Labor Day for them,” Chelgren said. “That’s why they’re trying to change the rules so nobody else can have an event. They believe they own Labor Day.

“They wanted to make sure nobody else had those opportunities and they gave special privilege to their political allies. ... Obviously they were caught in their own deception and lies.”

Flanders said the reason it didn’t go to the Parks Board came down to timing.

“It was a timing issue,” Flanders said. “There was no purposeful avoidance of the park board.”

City Clerk Amanda Valent said Flanders requested the item be put on the agenda late Thursday afternoon.

The council voted 3-2 to approve a language revision and a one-year reservation of the shelter, with Meyers and Niner as the dissenting votes.

Both Niner and Meyers said they would have voted to approve a reservation of the shelter a year in advance for the event had it been brought to the Parks Board first.

Following the meeting, Flanders reiterated that the issue was not politically motivated and that in hindsight, he would have moved faster to get the paperwork through so it would have made it to the Dec. 11 Parks Board meeting.

Shelter rental fee increase shot down

The City Council did not approve an increase in the rental fee of the Sycamore Park Shelter.

The Parks Advisory Board had approved 2-1 a fee increase for the shelter from $25 to $35. The City Council did not approve the measure 2-3, with Councilmen Brian Morgan, Mitch Niner and J.R. Richards as the dissenting votes.

Parks Director Gene Rathje said parks employees spend more time cleaning this shelter after it’s used than other park shelters. The shelter was rented 67 times this year, he said.

“If you’re going to do that, I don’t know why you wouldn’t, Monday through Friday, lower the other shelters by $10 to encourage weeknight rentals,” Niner said.

When the item was first presented to the Parks Board, it was presented as an increase to $50, Morgan said.

“It looked like a money grab, just another way to make 25 bucks,” he said. “Then, after the fact, it made it, to me, look like,  well, we can’t get another $25 out of ‘em, let’s get at least another $10 out of ‘em.”

Rathje said one to two parks employees go out every Saturday, Sunday and Monday morning — on overtime — to clean the shelters.

City Administrator Joe Helfenberger said the upcoming budget for fiscal year 2013-14 will likely hold to the same amount as the prior fiscal year, with some adjustments for union contracts, fuel and energy costs.

William Jones, an Ottumwa resident, expressed his concerns about increasing taxes.

“My real estate taxes were $500 when I moved here, and I thought that was a little high,” Jones said. “But since that time they have increased 600 percent. That doesn’t say much for this community.”

Jones said Ottumwa will never attract new industry due to taxes and “union attitude.”

“It’s worse in Ottumwa than any place I’ve ever lived,” he said. “If we’re not careful, we’re going to be in the same position many other communities are in today, going bankrupt.”

Jones suggested cutting all department budgets by 10 percent and getting rid of the Ottumwa Fire Department, making it entirely run by volunteer firefighters.

“We don’t need it,” he said. “It doesn’t do anything but chase police cars and ambulances.”