The city of Richland in south Keokuk County has just under 600 people, but in last year’s election, 11 people ran for five seats on the City Council.
Four newcomers unseated incumbents on the council. The mayor held off a write-in challenger who came within seven votes of winning. Now seven months since taking office, the new council has made some changes. They hired a new city attorney and are set to hire a new city clerk. The city, too, now has a full-time maintenance worker.
Their actions have not been without dissent — mostly from the mayor who says the new bloc sometimes ignores state laws governing open meetings. The Iowa Public Information Board accepted a complaint in June that three of the council members discussed a $2,500-dollar expense outside of a public meeting. In response, the council pledged to do more education.
But this is not a city in crisis. Mayor Thomas Hoekstra says the city is solvent and property values in the city have increased $6.5 million during the past decade. Hoekstra chalks this up to ordinances the council has set in place that have spruced up appearances in town.
A $60,000 investment was made to acquire and knock down three properties in town. Multiple houses and a set of condos were built on that land, raising the property values $650,000, he said. Instances like these, and the city operating its own utilities, are what make Richland an ideal place to live, he said.
Hoekstra, a lifelong Richland resident, is in his seventh term as mayor. He has seen a lot over the years, including a former city clerk accused of embezzling $58,000 from city coffers in 2016.
Before the November 2019 election, posters around town listed the names of six residents running for council, he said. The voters spoke, and four of the five existing council members were replaced. One council member retired and did not run for reelection that year.
Immediately, Hoekstra smelled trouble.
“I anticipated we were going to have some problems,” he said.
Newly elected City Council member Lee Duwa, who owns B & L Concrete, said he initially ran on a suggestion from his wife. First on his to-do list, he said, was the hiring of a maintenance person for the city — which the council did in July.
He said now the council is working on finding grant money to take down an old school, respond to nuisance complaints and is doing the day-to-day tasks of running the city.
“Sometimes change is good,” Duwa said.
In another change, council members hired Phil Parsons to replace previous city attorney John Wehr, from Sigourney. To Duwa, hiring a new city attorney was “long overdue.” He said he wanted the city attorney to be more involved in week-to-week council meetings instead of as problems arose.
The council voted 4-1 on that decision, with sole returning council member Alisa Tolle the lone dissenting vote. To Tolle, having the lawyer sitting in on each meeting would be too expensive for the small city.
Parsons was previously the Jones County attorney, an elected position and now is an expert in municipal law with both the city of Richland and the city of Lockridge as clients. He charges $175 an hour.
With many Richland City Council meetings lasting three hours, the average cost to taxpayers is $525 a meeting.
Hoekstra said before Parsons’ hiring in March, Wehr was the city attorney since 2004. In that time, he attended only a handful of meetings in order to keep costs low. If there was a question, it was handled after the meeting, and bills were made according to how much time was needed to answer the question.
The hiring of the new city attorney was a move Hoekstra opposed, but one he saw coming.
“I think you could sense there was a general house cleaning coming,” he said.
Mike Hadley, a new city council member, said he ran for the council because “our community reached a point where we needed some new leadership.”
Although a nearly complete council turnover doesn’t happen often, it’s not unheard of according to Iowa League of Cities Executive Director Alan Kemp. Of the state’s 942 cities, more than half have a population of less than 500 people.
“Cities almost have personalities,” he said. “You can take two cities, population 500. In the same election year, City A will have a hard time attracting anyone to run and have to rely on write-in candidates or appointments, and then there are cities like Richland that garner a lot of interest and a whole new group is put on the council.”
Hadley said he believed the city was well in tune with the council’s decisions — he said as many as 250 people have phoned into previous council meetings that are available on a conference call due to coronavirus restricions.
In the coming weeks, the group plans to hire a new city clerk. LaNelle Kopsieker, a four-year city clerk in Richland, resigned in June to take a new job in Keokuk County.
Her resignation came after she filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board, which handles open meeting complaints, alleging two council members had made “humiliating and unjustified allegations” during an open meeting on June 1. The complaint continues that this amounted to a performance review that should have been in closed session.
Parsons, for the council, denied the comments were intended to be about Kopsieker’s performance and the conversation stemmed from comments concerning a complaint of the city’s handling of a bid for tree service.
Kopsiker’s complaint was not accepted by the state board, which ruled it was an ethics issue and did not fall under the Iowa Code governing open meetings laws.
There was great interest in Kopsieker’s replacement.
The city received more than 100 applications for the clerk job, Hadley said, and now the list is narrowed to three finalists.
The next Richland City Council meeting is tonight at 7 p.m. at the City Hall. The council has three finalists for the clerk position and will hammer out the pay and benefits for the position at the Monday meeting, Tolle said.
Jordan L. Wright was a council member for two-and-a-half years and was not reelected in November. Wright said he was surprised by the number of people who ran but felt the reasoning could be because the job seems easier from the outside looking in.
Wright said sometimes it is easier to criticize a position when one is not actually in it. He said he felt sometimes people running for city council have a personal agenda to fix things for themselves instead of looking out for the town as a whole.
Disagreement — whether over hiring new legal help or a new city clerk – comes with the territory, said Parsons, who grew up in Richland.
“There’s always sides to things. People don’t always see eye-to-eye and agree, and that doesn’t mean that’s always a bad thing. We want people to think critically. I think that as long as the government is doing things in a transparent way — that’s the essence of small town democracy.”
Hoekstra, however, does not feel the council is working in a transparent fashion. Instead, he feels decisions are being based on emotions, not rational thinking.
“Personnel matters should not be personal. It’s not a ministry, it’s an administration,” he said.