Closed candidate interviews fail public interest

There’s a lot of chat right now about extra taxes being assessed on city residents, businesses and industries in the form of a franchise fee, so it’s not easy to advocate for the cost of a special election.

But the city council and mayor have decided to allow possible closed session interviews with candidates who throw their hat in the ring for the vacant 2nd and 3rd Ward council seats.

We’d rather see an election.

It’s probably a moot point as far as filling the vacancies because one of the candidates, Jerry Hamelton, has said he won’t let the council “pick another friend” to serve and he’s going to file a petition for a special election. He’ll need just a handful of signatures to get that done.

That petition, according to Lee County Auditor Denise Fraise, if successful will also put the 3rd Ward seat up for election as well and remove the appointment process. But it’s still a very important discussion about why the council would allow a closed session interview to fill an elected position vacancy.

To be very, very clear. We disagree with the city and and any legal interpretation of that code, which would permit closed session interviews to fill those vacancies.

Iowa Code at 21.5(1)(i) allows for a governing body to go into closed session to evaluate, and this is right out of the code folks, “the professional competency of an individual whose appointment, hiring, performance, or discharge is being considered when necessary to prevent needless and irreparable injury to that individual’s reputation and that individual requests a closed session.”

Fort Madison Mayor Matt Mohrfeld cited that language Tuesday night when asked by Councilman Mark Lair if candidate interviews would be conducted in closed session. The city’s attorney Pat O’Connell was on via video conference and didn’t interject.

We will. And we object.

The intent and grammar of 21.5(1)(i) does not give a city the option of interviewing candidates to fill a vacancy on the council out of public view, in our opinion. Nor does it serve the public interest in any way whatsoever.

Let’s pick apart the code. Elections cannot require of candidates, and some times this more clear than we want it to be, a level of “professional competency”. Period. They are based on residence, age, and sometimes a criminal background. Nowhere in the U.S. will you find a candidate qualification for public office that requires a level of “professional competency”, and that is all 21.5(1)(i) addresses.

That competency is measured by the electorate in a public format. i.e., news articles, debates, public forums etc.

Since there can be no premise of professional competency in a candidate for public office, there’s no foundation for that discussion in closed session.

Case closed. And yes, we believe it’s that simple.

The campaign process is all about the public getting to know the candidate. Holding a candidate interview in closed session is a huge skirt of the law, and is even more disingenuous to the voters of the 2nd and 3rd wards.

It should also be suspect to every voter in Fort Madison.

Back to the code, the language the city’s attorney is working off reads the closed session can only be held when necessary to prevent needless and irreparable injury to the individual’s reputation.

Those who file to run in an election and campaign are subject to all those questions from the public. These candidates would get to sidestep that scrutiny by the very group that appoints them.

It very likely won’t get to that point if Hamelton gets his petition filed, but in the future it could. We believe, the intent of that code is for the appointment of staff by managers or administrators. Fort Madison City Code at 1-9-2 (1) allows for the city manager to appoint certain city staff with council approval.

This closed meeting allowance, in our opinion, is intended for those appointments that need to be approved by the council… and absolutely not for interviewing for council vacancies.

As an aside, the same Iowa Open Meetings code 21.5 reads at the very top, any ambiguity in the code is to be resolved in favor of openness. It’s a huge, huge stretch to believe these interviews should be done outside the public purview.

We are calling for all council members to vote against any closed session interviews of any candidates filling vacancies for public office. Forever.

By the way, rumor is that no one has stepped up for the 3rd Ward seat vacated by Tyler Miller Tuesday. That’s the district between 16th and 24th streets from Avenue P to A with a jog north on 24th.

It’s a tough draw historically, but now’s the time. The city is facing the possibility, and likelihood, of imposing a franchise tax on gas and electric usage to help climb out of a financial funk. That vote will be a critical vote as industries and economic development officials oppose it, but the city’s financial picture is not good.

Level heads and well-versed individuals are going to need to be a part of that discussion… and many, many others. But we believe, based on conversations at Tuesday’s meeting, that issue will be in front of the council in short order.

Someone in that district has had a thought of running for office while reading a PCC article. Call the mayor at 319-470-0937. He’d love to hear from ya – but that’s Beside the Point.

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