Something's starting to stink in Donnellson


This week I want to talk about something a bit more important than my subconscious, or sleep patterns, or why the Reds blow since the All-Star break.

I think we need to talk a bit more about the value of transparency in dealings with local governmental agencies. Yes, it’s not that piece that will make you smile over your coffee as you sit on the patio or at the kitchen table, but it’s something we need to talk about.

Erin and Brian Wagner of Donnellson have been battling City Hall and now it looks like the City Council will not be allowing them on the next agenda as a discussion topic.

The Wagners are obviously able to talk during the public comment section, but most councils and boards will say they can’t comment on issues discussed in those sessions due to open meetings laws.

Wrong. It’s just wrong.

Attorneys representing these boards advise them to not comment because what they say could come back to bite them. But there is nothing in the Iowa Code section 21.5 that prohibits them from discussing issues with their constituents. It’s just not there.

The only thing they cannot do is deliberate toward any action. They just cannot take action, because that action is not spelled out in the agenda that the public has access to prior to the meeting.

It’s also wrong that they can’t get on the agenda.

This is a family who’s had sewage back up in their home not once, but multiple times, and have had to remove children from the home while they get the bacteria out of the home.

The city isn’t taking responsibility for the issue yet, but they are investigating the situation as many other homes along that service line have reported problems during heavy rains as well.

On Friday, August 4th my mother’s home backed up for the first time ever with four inches of storm water. The plumbers ran 50 feet without hitting any debris, so that tells me that water likely came through a backflow. It cost mom more than $5,000 to get that cleaned up.

It would appear, as was the case in Donnellson, this is a capacity issue. She hasn’t ever had water like that in her home – four decades.

So she wants to pressure West Burlington’s city hall about the capacity problem, but she fears it will do no good unless a bunch of people do the same.

Who’s to blame and how it gets mitigated isn’t the problem. It’s the transparency of the issue. Elected city officials, who are also residents of the city, should welcome residents to discussions about infrastructure issues. They should welcome discussions about anything, and they should engage in those discussions.

Not allowing a family to get on the agenda, because the mayor doesn’t want the issue on for discussion has a tremendous chilling effect on citizen rights, but also on community growth. Who wants to live in a town where accountability is hard to find, but so is transparency.

The Wagners have talked about leaving the community, but they will be hard-pressed to sell their home when a potential buyer finds out about the ongoing sewage issues. Open and frank discussions about the problem and the fix are critical to a community’s health.

We pushed the Fort Madison City Council a couple weeks ago about a closed session to discuss a real estate purchase. The council has been rapped by the Iowa Public Information Board for doing something similar in previous years.

They can only discuss real estate negotiations in closed session if a public discussion would disadvantage the city. And the discussions have to be recorded with notes taken. If action is taken after the closed session to purchase or sell property, it’s hard to prove a disadvantage. There's no time for anyone to change any offers. There’s no chance for anyone to see or hear a price and subvert it or outbid someone else when the council is making a decision right out of the closed session.

However, it’s also difficult for the council to be good stewards of tax money if they discuss real estate options in public if they aren’t going to make a decision right away. Because then someone could raise the selling or asking price after hearing or reading about the discussions.

In the gray areas of Iowa law, those questionable scenarios are to be decided in the light of openness. That is in the code.

Erin Wagner has been heard and part of the agenda at previous meetings. Since those meetings, additional information, such as camera footage of the city line, has come to light. That begs the question why she isn’t again allowed to discuss the issue with the council, not just be heard on the issue.

And the council members should be pushing Mayor Dave Ellingboe to put Wagner back on the agenda for a healthy discussion on why her family is facing tens of thousands of dollars in mitigation for what looks to be, on the surface, a city infrastructure issue.

As we move around the northern part of the county covering county, local, and education boards and councils we honestly believe that these people are getting better at being transparent, but there’s work to be done.

In our debate with the Fort Madison City Council, city attorney Pat O’Connell explained the closed session validity, but when I pressed about how the city was being disadvantaged if they come out of the session and approve the transaction, he said that was his interpretation of the law and he sat back in his chair with his arms folded.

Okay. As I always say, it’s a debate, not an attack. We are charged with minding the people’s business. We are not innocent bystanders. We try to stay out of the news, but when we have to push for openness in discussions, sometimes we do fail at that effort.

I will say that Mayor Matt Mohrfeld, in a move I haven’t seen in my time in journalism, asked the media in the room if they had any issues with the council going into closed session.

That’s progress and very much appreciated…But Beside the Point.

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

openness, Iowa PUblic Information Board, Iowa Code, 21.5, open meetings, closed meetings, infrastructure, sewers, Donnellson, Fort Madison, Beside the Point,


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