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Civic Skinny

How Norris edged Marasco for the top county job. Tirrell sentencing delayed. Fired WOI-TV boss sues.

11/2/2020

The hiring of political veteran John Norris to be the new county manager — which was expected to be announced after CITYVIEW went to press — was not without its drama.

There were two finalists for the $230,000-a-year job vacated in June by Mark Wandro — well-connected state and national Democratic Party stalwart Norris and well-connected Democratic county insider Frank Marasco.

Norris, 62, is a longtime political operative — he was chief of staff to Gov. Tom Vilsack, had some big jobs in Washington, has consulted for presidential campaigns and has run (unsuccessfully) for governor and Congress. He grew up in Red Oak and has lived in Des Moines, Washington and Rome. He has a law degree from the University of Iowa.

Marasco, 40, has worked for the county for 15 years, first as a human-resources analyst and, for the past eight years, as chief administrative officer for the Sheriff’s Department. He comes from an old south-side family — the Marascos, like the Mauros and the Chiodos and Bisignanos and many other families — that came from Italy and settled, and grew, in the area just across the Raccoon River from the ballpark, on Livingston and Dunham and Edison and Jackson and those streets. He has a master’s degree in public administration from Drake.

The two couldn’t be more different.

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Initially, the supervisors were split, two to two, on whom to pick, with Angela Connolly not having a clear choice. Chairman Matt McCoy, a Democrat with southside roots, and Republican Bob Brownell from the Western suburbs favored Marasco; Democrat Tom Hockensmith, a strong labor guy from the east side, and Republican Steve Van Oort from Ankeny favored Norris. Ultimately, Democrat Connolly came down for Norris.

Marasco had been eyeing the job for years, and what did him in, CITYVIEW is told, was that he seemed to be too much of an insider. There were still strong feelings about his close relationship with southside legislator and former county personnel head Tony Bisignano. When Bisignano was arrested in 2013 in Altoona for drunken driving for the third time and booked at 1:30 a.m., he first called his wife. After she called back, he twice called Marasco.

Shortly thereafter, Kevin Schneider, now the Polk County sheriff and then a top deputy, showed up in his private car to take Bisignano home. Most people would have been jailed, not released, critics said. Bisignano had been a controversial manager when he worked for the county, and those who didn’t (and don’t) care for him still hold the Bisignano-Marasco friendship against Marasco.

Being county manager is a tough job. The manager has five bosses, with equal power, widely differing interests and widely differing constituencies. What’s more, the manager has to deal with five other elected officials — the sheriff, the county attorney, treasurer, auditor and recorder — who can ignore him if they want. He has to deal with patronage demands from the supervisors and a stream of requests for more money, for services and charities, from each supervisor.

Indeed, a case can be made that not only is the job difficult, it is unneeded. Being a supervisor is a full-time job, and critics of the manager system say the job could be eliminated and each of the major departments — public works, community services, human resources and the like — assigned directly to a supervisor.

But that isn’t likely to happen.

The other thing is this: Ultimately, Marasco could well be county manager. He’s young, memories fade, and elected officials change. “He’ll be the manager eventually,” says one guy who has watched county doings for a couple of generations.

If it turns out that after CITYVIEW went to press Norris turned down the job or the county withdrew the offer, forget everything you just read. …

April Samp, who was fired as news director of WOI-TV last December after more than five years in the job, has sued Tegna Corp., which bought the station a year ago. Noting she was one of three women over 40 fired in the three months after Tegna took over, and noting, too, that all were replaced with men, Samp in September sued Tegna and three Tegna executives in Polk County District Court after first filing charges of discrimination and retaliation with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

The lawsuit alleges sex and age discrimination in violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act and alleges her firing was retaliation for speaking out against what the suit alleges were discriminatory pay practices against women by Tegna.

Before any actions could be taken, Tegna and the individual defendants asked on Oct. 19 that the case be moved to federal district court in Des Moines. That was granted, and the case has been assigned to Judge Charles Wolle. Several documents, presumably pay information, have been filed under seal, but no hearings have been set. …

Marty Tirrell has avoided jail for another three months.

The sports-talk-show-host-swindler-felon-deadbeat-dad originally was set to be sentenced on April 7 of this year after pleading guilty to mail fraud, a crime that carries a sentence of up to 20 years in a federal penitentiary and a fine of up to $250,000.

The guilty plea was negotiated as the fed dropped nine other felony counts against Tirrell, including wire fraud and bank fraud and credit-card fraud. Over the last decade, Tirrell scammed millions of dollars from friends and relatives and acquaintances, often persuading them to pay for blocks of tickets at major sporting events, tickets they then would resell at premium prices. Often, though, Tirrell simply kept the money.

The coronavirus pandemic caused federal judge Stephanie Rose to reschedule sentencing to May 13. Again, because of the virus, that hearing was cancelled. In September, it was reset for Oct. 21.

But a week before that, his lawyers requested a continuance until “at least January 2021.” The court filing says “Mr. Tirrell’s age and underlying health issues put him at a higher risk for several complications if he were to contract COVID -19” in prison, where he would “be unable to socially distance from other inmates.” Tirrell is 60 years old.

“A three-month continuance of the sentencing hearing is requested to allow for additional time for a reduction in [Bureau of Prisons] COVID-19 rates and for treatment and programing to resume” at federal prisons, said the Federal public defender representing Tirrell.

The U.S. Attorney’s office did not object, so Rose granted the delay.

Tirrell is on pretrial release and is returning to his sister’s home in Massachusetts until the new sentencing date, the court papers said. But he faces another — though lesser— problem in Massachusetts, where he has been charged with defrauding a local man of $4,570 in a Red Sox ticket deal. That appearance, in Greenfield District Court, now has been rescheduled for a final pretrial conference on Nov. 12. …

Steve Zumbach, 70, who has been with the Belin law firm since 1977, is retiring at year-end. A protege of David Belin, he has long represented some of Iowa’s wealthiest families in estate and tax issues, and he has had his hand — visibly or invisibly — in about every important community project for a couple of generations.

He has long been an informal adviser to the presidents of Iowa State University, where he received his undergraduate degree. While still a student, he was appointed by Gov. Bob Ray to the state Board of Regents before there was a designated student seat on that board. He has chaired the university’s fund-raising campaigns, headed its alumni association and chaired its research foundation.

None of these activities have been bad for business at the firm. …

Just how much trouble is the new downtown Hilton in? It’s a relevant question, because the county and city are on the hook for millions of dollars in bond guarantees. Nobody is really saying, and the county seems to believe it’s nobody’s business, but the hotel appears to be deeply in the red, say a couple of the very few people who know the facts and see the figures. “It’s the county’s number one problem,” says one county worker.

The hotel is set up as a nonprofit enterprise, but county officials have refused requests for facts and figures under the Iowa Freedom of Information Law. The financials of the taxpayer-owned hotel are “trade secrets,” the county attorney’s office told CITYVIEW two years ago in denying a request to look at the records. The denial also cited the exemption for “reports to government agencies which, if released, would give advantage to competitors and serve no public purpose.”

The county and, to a lesser degree, the city have spent or guaranteed around $70 million of the $105 million cost of the 330-room hotel opened a couple of years ago adjacent to the convention center and area downtown. The county lent the project $27,750,000 in a 30-year loan and has guaranteed another $15 million in bonds. The city guaranteed $8.5 million in bonds backed by a special sales tax in the area and provided another $14.2 million in urban renewal bonds, which are backed by the city’s assets.

The plan was for everything to be paid off from hotel profits, but the plan assumed what has turned out to be unrealistic expectations of room and occupancy rates. Sooner or later, the figures will become public, probably in a footnote to some budget report. …

CITYVIEW joins those saddened by the death of Tom Morain, a lovely human being. ♦

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