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In Robins, good government or cronyism?

This is a story I’ve been thinking about for a couple weeks, but just started working on seriously yesterday. I believe CBS 2 is also looking into it. It’s not going to run in the paper until later, but I thought I’d float it to see what people think. A couple questions: Is the story clear, logical? Does anyone care? Assuming anyone cares about this, any key questions left unanswered by the story below? I’d appreciate any input.

Much to the chagrin of Robins Mayor Ian Cullis, the City Council here is expected on Monday to award a city engineering contract through July 2010 to Snyder & Associates.

The Cedar Rapids engineering firm has served as Robins’ appointed city engineer for 18 years, and this will be the first time the firm works under a contract.

Cullis promises to veto Monday’s resolution, because he wanted the contract to go out for bid. The council will almost certainly override his veto.

Most cities in Iowa aren’t large enough to pay a full-time city engineer. They pay a private firm to handle the job, and if the firm is large enough, it often ends up getting the contracts to design and oversee major road, bridge and sewer projects.

This arrangement is appealing in Robins and other towns because, as long as the city trusts the private firm, it’s an efficient way to do business.

But Cullis, and former Mayor Joel Miller before him, have argued the city should be more careful. Because Snyder is Robins’ acting city engineer, the process by which it awards contracts should be more open, Cullis said.

“When you have the same company writing the scope of work, bidding on the work, always winning the contract, always telling you how much it’s going to cost, then you never understand what fair value is,” Cullis said.

While other small towns operate the same way, Robins (population 2,700) is unique because of the amount of work — and money — at stake.

The city’s population has tripled since 1990. More than 900 people have moved there since 2000, according to U.S. Census estimates.
With all that growth comes lots of projects that require engineering services.

In the past four years, Robins has paid Snyder $1.1 million, an average of $283,000 per year.

The city expects this summer to build a wider bridge on Main Street and rebuild the intersection of County Home Road and North Center Point Road. More residential developments and a sewer project are also on the horizon.

“There is a lot of money involved,” said Vince Bading, Robins’ public works and building official, one of two full-time employees of the city.

Bading argues, however, that Snyder is familiar with Robins, the council trusts the firm, the fees are competitive, and the council has repeatedly ensured the city is not getting bilked.

“If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” Bading said.

Darin Ligtenberg, a Snyder engineer and Robins resident, has worked as the city’s engineer for 14 years.

“It’s been a long relationship, there’s no doubt about it,” Ligtenberg said.

He said engineering services often are not put out for bid. Cities and government agencies — the City of Cedar Rapids and the Iowa Department of Transportation, for instance — choose firms based on qualifications, not bids, he said.

If Snyder was a smaller firm, Ligtenberg might take statements of qualifications from other firms and award contracts based on those. But Ligtenberg’s firm is large enough that projects like the bridge and the intersection can be handled by Snyder engineers.

So let me get this straight, Cullis argues, Ligtenberg awards the work to his company, his company does the work, he oversees his company doing the work and his company submits bills for both its work on the project and Ligtenberg’s oversight of it?

“I want there to be a system of checks and balances,” he said. “That shouldn’t be offensive to anyone, especially when we’re dealing with public money.”

Cullis is alone among city officials.

The Robins city council voted 5-0 in November on a motion to award the contract to Snyder, without going out for bid. Motions can’t be vetoed, so in order to allow for Cullis’s veto, which will probably be overridden, the council will vote on an identical resolution Monday.


Filed under: Other, , , ,

Do NOT call me a slumlord

A federal judge granted a motion by Robert Miell that prohibits witnesses from referring to him as a slumlord in his trial, which starts Monday.

The trial is in Sioux City. Gazette reporter Trish Mehaffey will cover the entire trial, and she’ll be liveblogging it on

Miell, by far the biggest landlord in Linn County, faces 18 counts of mail fraud, three counts of perjury and two counts of filing a false tax return.

A jury awarded $1.9 million to American Family Mutual Insurance of Madison, Wis., in a civil trial last January against Miell for insurance fraud. The mail fraud charges in next week’s trial stem from that fraud case.

Filed under: Other,

What does a supervisor do?

To those who thought I would answer the question in clear, simple terms, I apologize.

It’s not that easy. For one thing, the supervisors themselves determine what they do, and they are the ones who know how they spend their time. (Much as I’d love to, I don’t follow them around all day.)

When Salary War I broke out in January 2008 with the near-assassination of Archduke Dave Machacek at the hands of Steve Jackson Sr. and Jim Houser, I wrote a story entitled “A full-time job, full of meetings,” in which I reported that the job of a county supervisor is in a sense unlimited.

From the story, dated Jan. 13, 2008 (and edited slightly because I’m a slightly better writer now): …the supervisors say the scope of their job — as budget decision-makers, complaint takers, program administrators, mediators at the intersection of state and local government and custodians of myriad other duties — is so broad that adding two new members will not change their workload.

The upshot is they must perform a growing, scattered set of jobs, and, if they so choose, can work constantly. The new supervisors who take office next January, the incumbents say, face a steep learning curve and may be unprepared.

“The job just has grown,” said James Houser, a county supervisor since 1990. “There are so many things going on.”

And here we are, about to have the same debate, as the supervisors prepare to craft a recommendation for the Comp Board on how much they should be paid, probably at a meeting on Jan. 6.

As Solomon (that wise, weary king of Israel) said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

What we do know is Linn County’s job description for a supervisor is Iowa Code Section 331, starting with 331.301 and going forward. It’s a lot of reading.

Filed under: County Government, , , ,

Supervisor expenses surprisingly low

The blog post a couple weeks ago about Jim Houser’s threat to charge mileage for his drive from the Palmer Building to Westdale elicited a little bit of a response.

So I called the Auditor’s Office to get a list of paid claims the supervisors made from Dec. 1 to today. It could have been an unusual month due to the holidays, but the expenses were not exorbitant:

– Jim Houser claimed $4.20 for stamps.
– Lu Barron claimed $16 in parking fees and $180 in mileage for four trips to Iowa City/Coralville.
– Linda Langston claimed $118 for a per diem on a trip to a National Association of Counties conference in Phoenix. (Airfare was probably claimed in a different time period.)

Filed under: County Government, , , , ,

Lundby slipping away

I echo Todd Dorman’s approval for Jennifer Jacobs’ piece in the Des Moines Register on Mary Lundby — her failing health and her remarkable career.

I was four years old when Lundby was first elected to the legislature, and I’ve never covered the legislature as a beat reporter, so I won’t pretend to know Lundby.

But the handful of times I interviewed her she was warm, sincere and eloquent. Never brushed me off, even though I probably asked silly questions. Haven’t spoken to a more impressive politician.

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The supervisors’ side of things

To be fair to Supervisors Linda Langston, Jim Houser and Lu Barron, there is a coherent argument for them to have done what they did on Tuesday.

It’s this: We don’t believe the job is or ever was part-time, we only made it part-time for political reasons, and now we’re clearing the decks for the new five-member board to start over with the Compensation Board and reset our salaries at whatever is appropriate.

Langston argues that though the move to repeal the part-time resolution looks bad, it is necessary.

This is where people disagree.

So, question number one: Is the job full time?

If the answer is no, then of course the supervisors screwed up by repealing the resolution.

But the supervisors have been fairly consistent in insisting that the job is full time.

“I don’t have any belief that this is going to be any less than a full-time job,” Langston said in March, the day she announced that they would pass the resolution to make the job part-time. She said candidly that the resolution was “the only way around the laws that exist” for them to lower the pay in response to public wishes.

If the supervisors are right, and yes, the job is full time, then, question number two: Was it necessary for the supervisors to repeal the resolution halfway through the fiscal year, thus giving themselves and the two new supervisors a $9,000 raise over what they would have made in the next six months?

This question is more difficult for the supervisors to answer.

Instead of repealing the resolution on Tuesday, and making the March charade entirely meaningless, they could have conceivably resolved to repeal the part-time resolution on June 30 (the end of the fiscal year), and allowed the Comp Board to set their full-time salaries effective July 1.

That way they wouldn’t have had to go back on their March decision and wouldn’t have given themselves a “raise” over the next six months. But they still would have made the job full-time and given the Comp Board the opportunity to decide a full-time supervisor’s salary for the fiscal year that starts July 1. (Just to be clear, what the Comp Board decides in February will have no bearing on the next six months. It will apply to fiscal 2010, which starts July 1.)

Meanwhile, the words of Dave Machacek, who lost to Houser in the Nov. 4 election, sound awfully prophetic. He was there on the day the supervisors passed the part-time resolution, March 10, 2008.

“Why do they have to be cornered before they act?” he said. “All this is a political ploy to take the heat off their backs until after the election.”

Filed under: County Government, , , , , ,

Supervisors: Merry Christmas to us!

The Supervisors will on Tuesday decide whether to repeal a March resolution that turned them into part-time employees of Linn County, effective Jan. 1.

If they repeal it, the new Board of Supervisors will start Jan. 2 with salaries of $89,522 each.

The part-time resolution was the only way for the supervisors to reduce their own salaries after a heated, tangled controversy in which the county “Compensation Board” gave them a 6 percent raise even though the board of supervisors is expanding from three to five members.

Public outcry was significant. The Comp Board (it’s a 7-member board appointed by the elected officials whose salaries it decides) decision was particularly frustrating to those who’d pushed for a five-member board thinking it would mean the salaries of the three supervisors would be split among the five.

The supervisors (who made no argument to the Comp Board for their salaries to be cut) at first pinned responsibility on the Comp Board, then tried to get the Comp Board to reconvene and cut their salaries. When the Comp Board refused, the supervisors passed a resolution making themselves part-time, a move they said would reduce their salaries to about $70,000, but not until the five-member board took office Jan. 2.

It was a jerry-rigged solution, but it put the controversy to rest, or at least on simmer, through the primary and general elections.

Now, two days before Christmas and 11 days before the new five-member board takes office, the supervisors might repeal the resolution.

If they do in fact repeal it, their salaries will be restored to $89,522 per year unless the Comp Board decides to cut their wages. This has never happened before, but Linda Langston said the new board will meet early next month to forge a recommendation for the Comp Board.

Unless they recommend a cut, and the Comp Board accepts the recommendation (those are both pretty big ifs), the supervisors will have received not a single paycheck under the reduced salary.

Filed under: County Government, , , , , ,

Public Radio hires C.R. reporter

Iowa Public Radio has hired a Cedar Rapids reporter.

His name is Alex Heuer, and he will be based at KCCK – 88.3 FM, at Kirkwood Community College.

He comes from Macomb, Ill., where he was an anchor and reporter for WIUM/WIUW, which covers west central Illinois, northeast Missouri and southeast Iowa.

Here’s the press release:

12/19/08 (Des Moines) – Iowa Public Radio welcomes Alex Heuer to the newly created position of Cedar Rapids Reporter. In his role, Heuer will be responsible for covering Cedar Rapids and the surrounding area, producing stories for statewide broadcast on Iowa Public Radio. He will join the network on January 5, 2009.

Heuer comes to IPR from WIUM/WIUW, the public radio station that serves West Central Illinois, Northeast Missouri, and Southeast Iowa. During his time in Macomb, IL his duties included hosting and anchoring, reporting spots and features, producing documentaries, and live reporting of breaking news.

Heuer also covered the Iowa Caucuses in the Keokuk area last year. He has been recognized by the Illinois News Broadcasters Association and the Public Radio News Directors Incorporated with awards for reporting.

IPR News Director Jonathan Ahl stated, “Alex brings an impressive amount of energy to Iowa Public Radio, and a history of producing the kind of news stories that sets public radio apart. He will be a great addition to the staff. We are also excited to have a full-time reporter in the second biggest city in the state.”

Heuer is a graduate of Western Illinois University with a degree in history education and pre-law. He will be based at KCCK in Cedar Rapids as part of IPR’s growing partnership with the station.

Filed under: Other, ,

Tom Ulrich was not alone

Space was tight in this morning’s paper, so there wasn’t room to get into it, but when the Emergency Management Commission voted to hire Mike Goldberg as the new coordinator last night, Tom Ulrich wasn’t the only EMA staffer who spoke up to voice dissent.

Don Vincent, the EMA plans officer, made similar comments.

“This agency and this county has already gone through one disaster with a coordinator without emergency management experience and this agency does not need to go through more of a learning curve,” he said in a prepared statement to the commission. “This agency has begun to repair its reputation and reform the links that were damaged by the former coordinator.”

The “former coordinator” is Rich Mahaney. To this day, none of the taxpayer-funded officials in local government has stepped forward to explain what he did wrong, but apparently he “damaged” some “links.”

Vincent went on to question the commission’s commitment to the EMA and the people of Linn County, and said he was thinking about quitting.

Filed under: County Government, , , , ,

Office hours, meeting times and agendas

The only thing the Linn County Supervisors didn’t cover in an afternoon planning session with former city manager Jeff Schott is the color of the pens they will use while in office.

Schott, a cross between Jimmy Stewart and Chuck Grassley, led the supervisors through a detailed discussion of how they will operate in the new year, with five members. Supervisors-elect Ben Rogers and Brent Oleson participated as well.

They identified a series of topics for future discussion. How will the supervisors take and track citizen complaints? What role will supervisors play as liaisons to county departments? How much authority does an individual supervisor have to direct staff members?

They decided to stick with the current meeting schedule (Mon-Tues-Wed, Mon-Wed, Mon-Tues-Wed, Mon-Wed, etc.), and the current location for most meetings, Westdale Mall.

But not without some dissent from Jim Houser.

“Right now we’re meeting at Westdale, which is really inefficient for me,” he said.

Houser said he can’t get prepared for 9 a.m. meetings there because the Palmer building (where supervisors keep their offices) is not on the way to Westdale from his southwest Cedar Rapids home, and he can’t get to his e-mail inbox.

He suggested he could drive to Palmer at 8 a.m. and then charge mileage for the drive out to Westdale and back. Lu Barron suggested he could print out what he needed the night before.

Everyone but Houser wanted to stick with holding meetings at Westdale for the foreseeable future.

Filed under: County Government, ,

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