Much of this week’s meeting of the Courier’s editorial board focused on the current dispute over the standing of seven candidates for Ottumwa’s school board. The candidates are the subjects of a new court filing that seeks to have them removed from the ballot because their candidate petitions did not include petition collectors’ signatures as required.
The fact almost half of the candidates had the same error sent up a red flag for our board. But there was also the sense that those running for a position as important as a school board seat should know how to fill out forms properly.
There were multiple questions about how the school board handled the issue. Several board members were uncomfortable about the fact people who had a clear stake in the outcome of the board’s decision were among those voting on it. Under Iowa law, though, that’s hard to avoid in such a situation. There were long discussions about whether it was more important to meet the spirit of the law or the letter, or whether those were even different points in this case.
In the end, our board could only agree on one thing: the members were glad this decision isn’t theirs to make. The consensus that emerged was that the courts making the decision is probably the best for all parties.
Whichever judge rules on the petition filed this week will be an outsider, someone without a direct interest in the outcome. In fact, Judge Lucy Gamon already recused herself from the case because she lives within the school district. While we believe Gamon is fully qualified and capable of rendering a decision in keeping with the law’s requirements, it’s heartening to see the officials of our courts system act so clearly and decisively to avoid even the appearance of a conflict.
That’s a position the school board and, to a lesser extent, the county auditor’s office, is unable to reach due to who is running in the election. Earlier proceedings have been hit with accusations of conflicts of interest, misinformation and underhanded techniques. We’re not suggesting either side’s accusations are accurate — we’re not in position to come to a conclusion on that — but it’s clear that having the courts as a disinterested party offers the best chance at a resolution everyone can accept.
Iowa’s judiciary is, generally speaking, one of the best in the nation for the separation between it and politics. That’s how it should be. Judges do more than simply call balls and strikes, to borrow the words of U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, but Iowa’s courts stand out for their ability to do so without undue political influence or interest.
That reputation serves well in situations like this in which there is no outcome that will satisfy all parties. No matter the court’s conclusions, someone is going to be aggrieved. Someone is going to feel they got the short end of the decision.
But, by moving the question out of the hands of those who are directly involved in the campaigns for the school board and into the hands of the judiciary, Ottumwa has the best chance at an outcome everyone can live with. And that’s of no small importance.