BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – A sitting city councilman may have a loophole that will allow him to retain his city council seat even after pleading guilty to a felony drug charge.
Travis Seidel, who represents the 3rd Ward on the Fort Madison City Council, pleaded guilty on March 30 to a Class C felony for selling narcotics within 1,000 feet of a school. The charge was filed against him on Dec. 8 when he was arrested at his home by the Lee County Narcotics Task Force on two counts of distributing hydromorphone.
Seidel told Pen City Current last week that he had no inclination to resign after pleading guilty to the class C felony in North Lee County Court. As part of the agreement with the Lee County Attorney’s office, if approved by an 8th District judge at his sentencing on June 1, Seidel could get a deferred judgment. If that happens, Seidel could be sentenced to a period of probation, and if that probation is served successfully, the felony conviction would not be part of his permanent record. Seidel also faces possible fines as part of the sentencing.
The deferred judgment creates a murky picture on what happens with Seidel with regard to his seat on the Fort Madison City Council.
Section 69.2 (1)(f), of the Iowa Code reads: 1. Every civil office shall be vacant if any of the following events occur – f. The conviction of the incumbent of a felony, an aggravated misdemeanor, or of any public offense involving the violation of the incumbent’s oath of office.
A spokeswoman with the Iowa Secretary of State’s office, which oversees state elections, referred the issue to the Lee County Attorney’s office.
However, Lee County Attorney Ross Braden said Monday afternoon the disposition of Seidel’s seat on the council rests with the council, because Seidel may not have a conviction on his record if the plea agreement is upheld by the sentencing judge.
“Technically speaking, a deferred judgment does not constitute a conviction for personal records per se,” said Braden Monday afternoon. “A conviction would normally occur at sentencing, but the agreement calls for a deferred judgment. I wasn’t able to find under that code whether conviction encompasses deferred judgment.”
He said certain deferred judgments will carry a conviction because of other factors in the case, but he didn’t see that applying here.
“Ultimately this will fall on the city,” he said. “It won’t be my office…it’ll be the city.”
Another gray area is in whether or not Seidel violated his oath of office. City Councilman take an oath of office where they swear to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of Iowa.
A copy of the oath taken by Fort Madison City Councilman obtained from city officials does not specifically address pleading guilty to a crime, but rather to uphold both constitutions.
City Manager David Varley said in an earlier interview, city code doesn’t make the arrest an automatic removal.
A call to Varley on Monday afternoon was unreturned.
Mayor Brad Randolph said Monday night, it’s his understanding that the deferred judgment delays conviction until the probationary period is completed and the court expunges the felony from Seidel’s record.
If the plea deal were to constitute any form of a conviction by the presiding judge at the June 1 sentencing, Iowa Code indicates the seat would be vacated upon that conviction.
Randolph said however, the city code does allow for the council or community to step forward if they are unhappy with him retaining his seat.
“He’s technically not convicted because of the deferred judgment. We’re in a gray area and Ross has indicated me the council needs to decide how to interpret it so, I’m not sure I fully understand the legalities of the guilty plea and a deferred judgment,” Randolph said. “But it behooves the city and council to get a clear understanding of what that means and how it should be interpreted and what options that allows the city and public at-large going forward.”
Randolph said the issue is problematic for the city and the council.
“If he’s guilty of the thing but not convicted, the plea agreement and admission of guilt is problematic for the council going forward, and on different levels. It’s a council decision in trying to decide what to do. There are things to consider going forward. The council’s going to have to deliberate and decide what action, if any, they want to take. The public has a similar option,” he said.
Section 1-6-6 of the Fort Madison City Code addresses the issue of removing elected officials from office.
“Any person elected to a city office by the people may be removed from office by two-thirds (2/3) vote of the councilmen elected, after hearing on written charges preferred against said person by the mayor or any councilman and filed with the clerk, for willful or habitual neglect or refusal to perform the duties of his office, for willful misconduct or maladministration of his office, for corruption, for extortion, for intoxication, upon conviction of being intoxicated, or upon conviction of a felony. Before such person can be removed from office, he shall have at least ten (10) days notice of the time and place of hearing and shall be furnished with a copy of the charges preferred. At the hearing the accused may be present, may be represented by counsel, and may introduce evidence on his own behalf. The proceedings at the hearing shall, so far as is practicable, be in accordance with the rules of civil procedure followed by the district courts of the state of Iowa. Upon any question arising for decision, the question shall be by ayes and nays, and upon final issue the question shall be “Shall the accused be removed from office”.
The City Council meets in regular session Tuesday night.