'It has to be let go'
Audubon city leaders try to move past missteps of clerk appointment
February 25, 2014
Audubon Councilwoman Teresa Murray was clearly perturbed Monday night by the ongoing outcries of residents about an ill-fated vote the council took in January to replace its longtime city clerk. She said after the meeting that the issue is a distraction from more-important city business.
She was dismissive at times. Combative.
She let out a long, audible sigh.
Audubon City Councilwoman Teresa Murray was clearly perturbed by some of her constituents Monday night.
"Are we just here for this or are we here to get work done for the city?" she said at the council's regular, bimonthly meeting.
At the time, she and her fellow elected officials were discussing where and when to hold a special session to codify their expectations of the town's city clerk, whom the council sought to replace in an ill-fated vote last month - a move that has sparked an onslaught of criticism from residents for weeks and has dominated the talk at subsequent meetings.
"We get heckled," Murray later told the Daily Times Herald. Councilman John Whetzal, who many residents believe masterminded the clerk replacement, said he feels at times that he needs to "watch his back" in town.
The council voted 4-1 on Jan. 13 to replace Lora Hansen, the town's clerk for 26 years, with another woman whom Whetzal had contacted about the job in November. The council later nullified the vote because it failed to give 24 hours of public notice and didn't publish the opening 10 days before the vote, which is required as part of a state law that gives preference for municipal jobs to veterans.
Former City Attorney Lance Levis - who was not consulted about the clerk replacement and was on vacation at the time of the vote - resigned amid the flap, and city leaders later erred again when they requested applications for the clerk's job without taking an official vote to do so.
The town's interim attorney, Dave Wiederstein, of Atlantic, recommended earlier this month that the council officially extend Hansen's tenure for six months as it sets new requirements for the job, but the council demurred.
And then, there are the emails.
Numerous residents and the Times Herald have requested copies of council members' emails - which are public records with some exceptions - dating back to Oct. 1 to reveal details about the clerk-related votes.
Resident Dawn Rohe, who made the first email request in January, said that the council has been slow to respond and insists that some of the council members' responses are incomplete.
"We've admitted our mistakes," Murray told the Times Herald. "We've given the emails. But it has to be let go. ... You can only spend so many hours on one subject before you move on."
Murray - apparently hoping to tamp the outcries of residents - suggested the council hold its next meeting in its normal chambers, a place far too small to accommodate the dozens of residents that have flocked to meetings in the past two months.
The past three meetings have been held in a larger, nearby community room in City Hall with folding tables and chairs.
"If all these people want to come to that meeting," Councilman Bob Jacobsen said of the roughly 80 residents in attendance Monday night despite dicey, snow-laden roads, "we're not going to fit them in the council chambers. ... It's an open meeting, open laws."
Jacobsen cast the lone 'nay' vote on Jan. 13. In the weeks since that vote, some council members have said they were dissatisfied with Hansen's job performance - that she was slow to adopt new technology and should have kept city leaders better-informed about grant money available for city projects.
Hansen has said she was unaware of the gripes until the Jan. 13 vote.
The council finally agreed on Monday to hold its so-called "work session" to establish requirements for the city clerk job in conjunction with its next regularly scheduled meeting on March 10. The council is expected to appoint a clerk at a future meeting, and Whetzel told the Times Herald that it's still possible they will choose Hansen to remain in the job.
The council also agreed Monday to watch an hour-long Internet video - a so-called "webinar" - to learn about Iowa's open-meetings and records laws. It costs $35 for each of the five members. Audubon County Attorney Fran Andersen urged the council this month to seek education about Iowa meetings and records laws as she investigates the council's actions and decides whether to file a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board.
Several residents on Monday reiterated their disdain for the council's actions, most pointedly as the council reviewed the city's proposed budget for the next fiscal year that starts July 1.
Budgets - even for smaller cities - can be difficult to understand at first glance, and Murray and new Councilman Tom Nielsen had many questions.
"All you folks that want to give up Lora, you'd be up a creek without a paddle without her," resident Steve Stetzel remarked near the end of the budget discussion. "The new girl, if you would have hired her by now, wouldn't have known a damn thing about it."
Murray and Whetzal said after the meeting that the clerk appointment is a major impediment to city progress. Whetzal said he has been unable to move forward with a proposal to set standards for rental housing in town because he has been too busy responding to the requests for emails and residents' gripes.
The March 10 meeting starts at 7 p.m. at City Hall.
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