City right in closed session decision - for now


There were rankled moods this past week as the city council went about their due diligence in finding a new city manager.

There’s some in the city that don’t feel like we need a city manager. That we can rely on department heads who are trained to do what they do to handle the city’s day-to-day affairs. There’s some legitimacy to that argument, but the biggest argument is that it would save the city about $150,000 a year in salary and benefits. But, there’s a bigger concern to take into consideration –

Image. Image is everything. Especially when you’re trying to recruit 1,000 people to the city in the next four years.

You need a professional face on your organization. An unelected professional face.

The guy that makes the trip to Des Moines, and Washington, and attends the local economic development meetings, and understands state and federal government codes… all the while respecting transparency at all possible turns.

David Varley did a decent job. He was conservative and had an old view of government financing. He carried the belief that you had to have more money coming in than going out and that extended to debt service, as well. He railed against debt spending, but executed the direction of the council. He got emotional about his role because he was hired to usher the city in the direction of fiscal responsibility and progress.

One thing he did that didn’t sit too well was engaging in a little bit of misdirection when it came to the media. The Old Fort scenario comes into play with information released before the city was prepared to release it. Then a 24-hour run-pass option on what the media was told.

But, as we observe the process being undertaken to hire the next city manager we watched with a wary eye as the city council invited community members, department heads, the city attorney into closed sessions to evaluate the qualifications of three candidates recommended from Hinton Consulting out of Mason City.

Many, including those on the council, were concerned about the number of people in the closed session. We would assume that members of the public would be just as concerned with that dynamic.

However, it’s legitimate. The council can, per Iowa rules, invite whomever they want into closed session. We, as a news organization, watch that closer than anyone.

We are content. In this one instance, we are content.

It’s imperative the city get the right one person to lead the progress that’s being undertaken. The one person that gets that sometimes you have to deficit spend. It should be rare and when absolutely necessary to make something happen when it can’t happen later. When interest rates, or bonding capabilities, or markets, or sheer public need dictates that now is the time to act, you need someone with insight in that moment.

Clearly, that isn't the only litmus test for a good city manager. Someone with proven communication skills, negotiation skills, abilities to work within multiple departments and balance multiple projects at the same time. The ability to work with politicians, residents, economic development officials, business leaders, and yes, the media, sometimes all in the same day.

The exposure to the media in Fort Madison is somewhat diminished compared to larger metro areas. But there are several reporters locally now that push for transparency and following rules set out in Chapters 21 and 22 of the Iowa code.

These closed meetings were necessary to allow an open and frank conversation around who is the best candidate. As long as the conversations are focused on qualifications only, not gender, race, or religious preference, but qualifications.

Let’s not be confused here. You can have those frank discussions in open session, but the people having them have to feel comfortable doing that in public. That, very rarely, is the case.

So having an evaluation of a potential employee in closed session is legitimate. It becomes even more legitimate if that person is applying unbeknownst to his/her current employer because that’s where the threshold of the “irreparable harm” language of the chapter 21.5 (i) could be reached.

So instead of protesting the closed session, which we regularly do, we’re going to sit and watch this one. We may ask for recordings of the sessions following the selection process for the candidate who is hired as the irreparable harm language would be negated, but we may not.

The bottom line is the city is doing the right thing in assuring they get the most raw conversation with potential candidates they can get. The process could very well be the story, but in the interim, we will continue to monitor the situation with a watchful eye.

That watchful eye is also looking at other potential items, like a proposed wind generation field where the companies interested weren’t sure if they had to go through the Iowa Utilities Board, or whether they would use eminent domain for land grabs. We’re here and watching, but That’s Beside the Point.

Chuck Vandenberg is editor and co-owner of Pen City Current. He can be reached at

beside the point, editorial, Fort Madison, opinion, closed session, Iowa Code, chapter 21, Mayor, city manager, Chuck Vandenberg, Pen City Current, open meetings laws, Fort Madison, Iowa


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here