Thursday, December 8, 2022

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Civic Skinny

The curious cases of Mr. Doe and the former Mr. Doe. Property-tax suits filed. County salaries. Godfrey case.


One-hundred and nine of the 1,121 employees of Polk County will make more than $100,000 in the fiscal year that started July 1, up from 102 employees in the year just ended.

Once again, the highest-paid employee will be Gregory Schmunck, the county medical examiner, who will earn $250,767. Next in line is Mark Wandro, the county manager, who will make $204,699.

Last year, Schmunk earned $245,850, Wandro $200,685.

Next on the list is County Attorney John Sarcone, who will earn $195,391 this year. Six of his assistants will take in $166,082. They are Nan Horvat, Roger Kuhle, Thomas H. Miller, Jeff Noble, Daniel Voogt and Jim Ward.

Again this year, Horvat is the highest-paid woman on the county payroll.

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County Sheriff Bill McCarthy is the 10th highest-paid employee, at $162,587. His department remains the largest in the county, with 479 employees.

Sarcone and McCarthy are the highest-paid elected officials. The five county supervisors — Chairman John Mauro and Steve Van Oort, Angela Connolly, Tom Hockensmith and Bob Brownell — will make $115,438 this year, up from $112,076 last year.

County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald and Treasurer Mary Maloney will earn $115,975, and Recorder Julie Hagerty will make $115,438.

Hagerty is the highest-paid employee in the Recorder’s office, but Fitzgerald has four employees who earn more than he does, and Maloney has one.

The lowest-paid county employees: Three guys in General Services and one in the County Conservation department who will earn $34,728 this year. …

Some big taxpayers in Polk County are suing to have their new property assessments cut. It’s sort of a biennial thing.

Hy-Vee and related entities filed at least seven lawsuits on July 19 and July 20 seeking reductions in assessments totaling at least $85 million. The suits were filed in Polk County District Court after Hy-Vee was awarded some reductions — but not as much as it wanted — from the Polk County Board of Adjustment.

An example: The Ankeny store on Oralabor Road was assessed at $12,650,000 two years ago, but this year it was assessed at $13,730,000. Hy-Vee appealed to the Polk County Board of Adjustment, which cut the assessment slightly, to $13,560,000. Hy-Vee then sued the Board of Adjustment in Polk County District Court. The store, which was built in 2014, was sold by Hy-Vee to a limited partnership that year for $16,510,000, but Hy-Vee, not the partnership, is responsible for paying the taxes.

The timing of the Hy-Vee suits might seem a bit awkward: On July 21, the state Department of Economic Development awarded Hy-Vee and a subsidiary, Perishable Distributors of Iowa, “expansion tax benefits” linked to plans to build a bakery and food-kit plant and to expand a warehouse in Ankeny. Of the 210 jobs to be created, 10 are considered “high-quality,” paying at least $27.92 an hour, or about $58,000 a year. The value of the tax benefits wasn’t given in the state’s announcement or on its work sheet.

AMC, the new owner of Carmike Cinemas, has appealed the assessments of its multiplexes in Johnston and in Urbandale. The Johnston complex was assessed at about $11 million and was cut to $10.7 million by the board. AMC says the proper value is about $4 million. The Urbandale property was assessed at about $5 million and was cut to $4.6 million by the board. AMC says it should be about $2 million.

And Nationwide Insurance is appealing its assessments on several properties.

One oddity: Both Hy-Vee and AMC are using a Cedar Rapids lawyer, Thomas Wolle, to fight their Polk County assessments. …

John Doe, the student who sued Drake in a sexual-assault case, is no longer John Doe. But John Doe, the student who sued Grinnell in a sexual-assault case, is still Mr. Doe.

Both Iowa colleges asked Federal District Judge Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger to force each Mr. Doe to use his real name in his lawsuit. The result: Drake’s John Doe is now Thomas Rossley and Grinnell’s is John Doe.

The problem for Rossley: His dad had filed in effect a companion suit, saying Drake had unjustly kicked him off its Board of Trustees after his widespread complaints about the way the university handled a sexual-assault complaint against the son. The dad’s suit didn’t mention his son by name, but it was pretty easy to figure it out. Indeed, according to the court, “several news articles have been published referencing [both suits]” and naming both Rossleys. The court specifically cited a CITYVIEW article from February of this year.

“This detailed exposure and the fact the Plaintiff’s identity has not been kept confidential” undermines his request for continued anonymity, Goodgame ruled. Ruling Doe could no longer be Doe, she said, “This is not the exceptional case in which a plaintiff may proceed under a fictitious name.”

But Grinnell’s Mr. Doe does have that exceptional case. The main reason: “Unlike in the Drake case, there have been no efforts to gain publicity by any party or related party….There has been no disclosure of Plaintiff’s identity through his case or other related cases….There has been limited media coverage of the case…,” Ebinger ruled.

In other words, Doe’s dad didn’t butt in. …

Chris Godfrey’s second victory in the Iowa Supreme Court wasn’t quite the slam-dunk the media portrayed — but it was good enough that it should scare the state into settling. In January of 2012, Godfrey, the former head of the state’s Workers Compensation Board, sued Terry Branstad, Kim Reynolds and four other state officials alleging defamation, extortion, retaliation and discrimination as part of the state’s effort to get rid of him.

Then-Governor Branstad and others tried to fire him, and when that didn’t work they cut his pay. Godfrey was a Democrat with a fixed term that still had 46 months to run. He also was the only openly gay member of the Branstad administration. Somehow feeling he wasn’t wanted, he quit in 2014 to take a good job in Washington at the Department of Labor.

The case has twice gone up to the Supreme Court on specific issues. His lawyer, Roxanne Conlin, won the first, and she won a key chunk — and also lost a key chunk — of the second, which was handed down this summer. That issue was basically whether a citizen could sue state officials for money damages if the state officials violated that person’s rights to equal protection and due process under the Iowa Constitution and where there was no adequate remedy in the law.

The issue is complicated, and basically it came down to a three-to-three tie among the justices — with the alignments that have developed in the court over the past few years. Justice Brent Appel wrote a decision favoring Godfrey; David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht signed on. Justice Ed Mansfield, joined by Tom Waterman and Bruce Zager, sided with the state. That left Chief Justice Mark Cady in the middle, and his opinion thus ruled the day.

Godfrey’s allegation that he was discriminated against and harassed because he was gay won’t work, Cady said. Those claims, he said, are covered by the Iowa Civil Rights Act, where “robust” remedies exist, and that’s where a remedy lies for them.

But Cady agreed with the Appel camp that Godfrey’s allegation that his rights were violated because of partisan politics or by false claims of poor work performance were matters that should go to trial. In effect, the court said there is no statute that applies to such cases, and when that happens the Constitution itself becomes the operable law.

So now the case is back in court in Polk County, though no trial date has been set.

When the case was filed, Branstad asked that the defense be represented by lawyer George LaMarca rather than by the state Attorney General’s office, and over the years the state has paid out nearly $1 million to LaMarca. In recent months, though, the Attorney General’s office seems to have taken over the case — among other things, handling the arguments in the Supreme Court.

The state’s exposure to date is probably between $3 million and $4 million; if the case goes to trial — and whoever wins will appeal — the ultimate exposure could top $5 million. If she wins, Conlin might be entitled to her fees — it’s unclear if fees would be recoverable under the court’s newly created constitutional right of action — and those fees could by then approach $3 million. Godfrey probably will get some damages, and LaMarca will probably end up with $1.5 million or so. That is, of course, taxpayer money.

If Branstad had not cut Godfrey’s salary, the commissioner would have earned an extra $150,000 or so over the remaining 46 months of his term. So whatever it was that caused Branstad to try to get rid of Godfrey — pique or politics or pressure or prejudice — has already cost the taxpayers dearly.

Moving forward seems like a risk. Iowa juries have shown of late that harassment and discrimination can be costly. Earlier this year, a Polk County jury awarded $1.4 million to former University of Iowa administrator Jane Meyer in a lawsuit alleging retaliation and discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, and the university then agreed to pay $6.5 million to Meyer and her longtime partner, former Field Hockey Coach Tracey Griesbaum, who also had sued. The $6.5 million includes the $1.4 million verdict.

And in July, another Polk County jury awarded $2.2 million to Kristen Anderson, a staffer for Iowa Senate Republicans who had sued for discrimination and retaliation and harassment.

A person familiar with the Godfrey case says there has been no talk of settlement. ♦

‘A tragic mistake’


Soon, there will be days each week when The Des Moines Register has no editorial. On those days, there will be no comment on whether the City Council is misguided on this or that, no opinion on whether the Board of Regents is headed off in the wrong direction, no view on whether the Governor is making the right choices.


The newspaper, under continued economic pressures from its owners at Gannett, is cutting back — again — and in this cutback editorial writer Clark Kauffman is being moved back to the reporting staff. He won’t be replaced, leaving the page with editor Lynn Hicks and part-time writer Andie Dominick.

And no one else.

“That is an incredible, inexcusable, tragic mistake,” former editorial writer Bill Leonard says.

And that’s an understatement.

The editorial page is the soul of the newspaper. And, in the best of newspapers in the best of towns, it is the soul of the community. And the conscience. And, often, the heart. The editorial page is the place in a community where thought is pure and where punches aren’t pulled.

Need an example? Look up the Storm Lake Times, where editor Art Cullen won the Pulitzer Prize this year for well-reported, well-written, well-reasoned — and gutsy — editorials.

A consistent editorial page is a yardstick for readers. If, over the years, a reader has determined she is philosophically in tune with the paper, she can use the paper’s view to help guide her own thinking on a particular issue. If a reader has determined that he is seldom in agreement with the newspaper, he can use the newspaper’s view on an issue to bolster his own opposition to it.

Three times, Register editorial writers have won the Pulitzer Prize. The most recent, in 1955, helped change the world. That editorial, by Lauren Soth, invited Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev and a Russian farm delegation to visit the U.S. Khrushchev and the delegation came to Iowa. Some say it was that visit — spurred by that editorial — that began the thaw in the U.S. Soviet relationship.

At one time, the Register had an editorial-page staff of up to 10 people — writers, editors, assistants — and it stationed an editorial writer in Washington for awhile to keep a closer eye on national issues of importance to Register readers.

Now, it is a staff of one-and-a-half.

Do not blame Register President Dave Chivers or Executive Editor Carol Hunter. The blame lies back at headquarters, which has been sucking money out of the newspaper for 30 years. Indeed, Register bosses have held out longer than most of their Gannett colleagues. The Gannett-owned Courier-Journal in Louisville, for decades a thought leader of the South under the Bingham family ownership, quit running editorials every day two years ago and dropped its op-ed page at the same time. (The Register has no op-ed page on Mondays and Saturdays but will keep the page on the other days.).

So now, Clark Kauffman, who had been writing three or four editorials a week, is headed back to the newsroom — or, as he reminds us, to what Gannett calls the “information center.” So now, there will be days when we are left to wonder: What does the newspaper think about this?

On those days, we’ll never know.


— Michael Gartner

Michael Gartner won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing at the Ames Tribune in 1997 and is the author of “Outrage, Passion and Uncommon Sense,” a history of America as seen through editorials over the years.




















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