January 24, 2014

A newly elected Audubon city councilman's move this month to replace the town's longtime city clerk violated two state laws - one that requires at least 24 hours of public notice before a council vote and one that requires 10 days of notice so that military veterans can apply for an available municipal job.

Councilman Jason Hocker made the motion to replace City Clerk Lora Hansen, who has had the job for 26 years, with another woman, Janet Nelson, who he said "has a good background in managing people in the past and enthusiasm."

Hocker said Hansen's job performance was not the reason he sought a different city clerk.

"From my perspective, I'm a new council member, and I thought it would be good to have a fresh look," he told the Daily Times Herald on Thursday.

City clerks assemble meeting agendas and minutes, so Hocker asked Hansen to add an agenda item that was titled "reappoint city clerk" to the Jan. 13 council agenda the morning of the day of the meeting, less than 24 hours before the vote. The original agenda had been posted three days prior.

City councils are not allowed by state law to vote on issues with less than 24 hours' public notice unless it is an emergency in which there is a danger to life, property or health, said Alan Kemp, executive director of the Iowa League of Cities, which is an organization that advocates for city governments and helps them abide by state law.

Audubon's city code allows for a new appointment of city clerk after an election, but "the key to doing this is doing it properly," Kemp said.

Further, Iowa law dictates that military veterans are "entitled to preference in appointment" to available municipal jobs, and that cities must give 10 days' notice of an opening.

"Essentially (they need to) start again," Kemp said of Audubon's city clerk appointment. "Now that you know some of the steps, you need to go back and do this again."

He said one of the league's attorneys has coached Audubon city officials since the Jan. 13 vote about the laws that guide the appointments.

The issue is expected to be discussed at the next council meeting on Monday. Councilman Hocker acknowledged Thursday that the appointment vote will "probably have to be redone, depending on what the city attorney tells us."

But City Attorney Lance Levis - who said this week that he was absent from the Jan. 13 meeting because he was on vacation - abruptly resigned on Thursday, Hansen confirmed. In an interview with the Times Herald the day before, Levis said Hocker had not consulted with him about the city clerk appointment before the vote and declined to say what legal advice he would give the council at the next meeting.

Levis could not be reached this morning to comment about his resignation, and the Times Herald was unable this morning to obtain a copy of the letter Levis sent to the city council and mayor.

Former two-term Councilman Andy Griffith, who did not seek re-election last year but attended the Jan. 13 meeting, alleged that the appointment vote was meant to settle a spat between City Clerk Hansen and a current councilman, John Whetzal.

Whetzal seconded the motion to replace Hansen, and the resolution passed by a 4-1 vote. Councilman Bob Jacobsen cast the lone 'nay' vote.

"He's kinda like a bully," Griffith said of Whetzal. "He has (the new council members) doing the dirty work for him."

Griffith said Hansen was slow to adopt a so-called "paperless" approach to city government - in which city council documents are distributed electronically - that Whetzal, a first-term councilman, pushed after he was elected.

"He pushed it down everybody's throats," Griffith said. "He got all-new laptops for us plus in the city clerk's office and never once went in there and asked them what they needed.

"He just said, 'You gotta do this, you gotta do that.' "

Whetzal did not return a telephone message left on Thursday to comment for this article.

Mayor Sam Kauffman said Thursday that he had not decided whether he would sign the resolution to appoint a new city clerk. Such resolutions are effective when mayors sign them or after 14 days pass without a mayor's signature.

Kauffman could also veto the measure, but the four votes that affirmed it would also override his veto, he said.

"I've never had a problem like this since I've been on the council," he said. "I think it'll be a hell of a crowd" at Monday's meeting.

Hansen, the city clerk, said she is about two years from earning full benefits from the Iowa Public Employees Retirement System, but added she didn't plan to retire in the near future.

She declined to comment further on the situation.

Hocker said Hansen's retirement benefits were not a factor in his decision to replace her.

"It's a politically appointed position," he said. "That's the risk that one takes in one of those jobs."

Griffith, the former councilman, said there is little he can do to block Hansen's replacement, but that he plans to speak at Monday's meeting because "I want them to answer some questions and become responsible for the decisions they made."

"How shady these people are," Griffith said. "We're little Audubon, Iowa. If you got a problem with someone, go talk to them about it."