Courier Staff Writer
At this time next year, City Council chambers could look very different, as four of Ottumwa’s six elected officials are up for re-election this fall.
Mayor Frank Flanders and Councilmen Bob Meyers, Brian Morgan and Jeremy Weller are deciding whether to run for office again this November.
“At this point in time I am thinking of running for another term,” said Meyers, who is currently in his second term.
Meyers said he doesn’t represent interest groups and tries hard to be consistent in his approach to city issues.
“Individuals do run for council positions that do tend to serve the interest of special interest groups and give in to a lot of pressure, as opposed to doing what’s right and instead of micro-managing, relying on the staff we have,” he said. “I think it’s been a big problem, and to a certain extent continues to be. Sometimes because we have citizens contact us, we jump and react to that individual’s complaint and instead of first taking it to the city administrator or to staff ... sometimes I think we mislead citizens that, ‘Oh yes, I’m glad you brought that to our attention. I’ll take care of it,’ when in fact, there may be elements of it that we can’t take care of that easily.”
Meyers said he wants to continue representing one citizen just as he would any other. He said the council’s Dec. 18 meeting was the most disappointing in his seven years on the council “in that there truly was some political maneuvering going on.”
He’s referring to accusations made that the mayor was placing the council in the middle of a political feud after putting a last-minute item on the agenda for the Southern Iowa Labor Council to secure the Jimmy Jones Shelter for their Labor Day event ahead of the first day people are allowed to reserve shelters.
“The one thing about city government is it’s not supposed to be partisan in any way,” he said. “We’re supposed to do what we think is right for all people.”
Flanders said this election season could go one of two ways for him.
“It’s a bit early for me to say, but I will either seek re-election or seek another office probably at the partisan level in the not-too-distant future,” he said. “Right now the way things look, I’m leaning more toward re-election. The only thing that would really draw me away from it would be the emergence of an opportunity to run for an office at the partisan level.”
He said the unity that he’s developed within City Hall and with other community organizations has been a highlight of his first year-and-a-half, as well as improving the city’s relationship with Ottumwa Water Works and Hydro and “giving the council greater authority to remove board members has given us more clout with the autonomous boards.”
As the mayor settled into the position, he said nothing happened that he hadn’t anticipated.
“You’ll always have disagreements between elected officials,” he said. “But I’d like to have a little bit better communication with a couple of council members. I’ve extended an invitation to all of them to meet with me whenever they’re available. A couple have taken advantage of that and a couple have not.”
A second term for both Weller and Morgan is up in the air.
“I’ve got some things in the works for other jobs, so I’m not sure if I’ll have time to dedicate to it like I have the last three years,” Weller said.
During his three years in City Hall, Weller said some key people have been hired, including a city clerk, finance director and — though this wasn’t the council’s decision — an economic development director.
“The Legacy Foundation got up and running during my last three years, so that’s something that’s helped out the community,” Weller said. “We’re spending more on streets and sewers now than we’ve ever done. And getting VenuWorks at Bridge View Center ... I think finally Bridge View is on the right track.”
Morgan said he wants to make sure he would have enough time to commit to office after recently opening a restaurant, Morgan’s Corner, and starting a new job in the mornings.
“I’ve kicked around the idea of running for state representative or county supervisor, but there are some people I’d definitely want to talk to before I do anything,” Morgan said. “If I’m looking at doing a partisan office, I don’t want to run for council and then a year later give it up. To me it’s just not right to do that.”
While Morgan has consistently been opposed to hiking sewer rates, he said he’s proud of the council for keeping the increases as low as possible.
“In the three years I’ve been on, they’ve rose 12 percent,” he said. “That’s something I fought extremely hard to get lowered.”
If the Local Option Sales Tax had not passed and if the city had not received the $16 million grant for the West End Sewer Separation project, Morgan said sewer rates would have spiked 50 percent over the last four years.
Concerns over sewer rate increases continue to hover over the community, Weller said.
“That’s always one of the biggest things we deal with when it comes budget time,” he said. “When it’s time to raise sewer rates, nobody wants to do it, but we are under a mandate from the federal government to separate our CSOs. It’s never easy to raise taxes or to raise sewer fees, but I pay those, too. All of us pay those. It’s not like I raise it because I want to raise it. I’m looking at the big picture and what has to get done.”
One of the hardest things about serving on the council is “the amount of citizens that just have a negative outlook all the time.”
“We’re trying to change that persona about Ottumwa,” he said. “You always hear people who want to complain, but you don’t always hear the positive side of stuff.”
In hindsight, Morgan said turning the hospital area into a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district probably wasn’t the best idea.
“Even some people in the financial side of the city looked at that and said maybe we screwed up doing this,” he said.
Councilmen Mitch Niner and J.R. Richards will not be up for re-election until November 2015.