Friday, December 1, 2023

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Civic Skinny

Caldwell-Johnson for Mayor? Sheriff to retire? Botched judicial choice could have consequences.


Teree Caldwell-Johnson is thinking of running for mayor next year. And Sheriff Bill McCarthy is thinking of retiring this year.

Caldwell-Johnson, 62, is well-known in Des Moines. She was Polk County Manager from 1996 to 2003, is the very visible chief executive of the Oakridge Neighborhood Services, has been on the school board since 2006 (and is the current chair) and sits on a bunch of community boards. She would be a strong opponent for incumbent Frank Cownie or any of the others whose names keep popping up. One of those names is that of her school-board colleague Rob Barron.

For several weeks, she has been sounding out friends and some public officials about her prospects, and she says she is getting “positive feedback.”

Cownie, 70, has been mayor since 2004, when he beat Christine Hensley. Since then, he has been easily re-elected to three four-year terms. He didn’t reply to a CITYVIEW question as to whether he plans to run for re-election.

If Caldwell-Johnson were elected, she would be the first female to hold the job, though not the first African-American. Preston Daniels, who served from 1998 to 2004, has that distinction. Since Des Moines was founded in 1857, there have been 58 mayors. Cownie has served longer than any of his predecessors.

McCarthy has been Polk County Sheriff since 2009, when he was elected after retiring in 2007 as chief of the Des Moines police department, where he had risen through the ranks in a 37-year career. He was re-elected to four-year terms as sheriff in 2012 and 2016, and he still has two years on his latest term.

“My wife has had a long-time dream to avoid the Iowa winters,” McCarthy told CITYVIEW. “To that end, we recently purchased a house in Sarasota Manatee County area. At about the same time, we sold our Easter Lake home, and I moved into an apartment on the South side. My thinking at the time was, given the fact that we have been married 49 years, I could go to see her every so often and she could fly here for me and the grandkids.

“But I am finding that I do not like being separated from my wife and wish to be with her full time. I still love both this job and the community and feel that I have something to offer by way of the experience I have accumulated over the years policing in this community. So, while I have not made up my mind, it is something I am considering, which may or may not happen.”

If he does leave, the Board of Supervisors will name a successor to serve out the term. The odds-on favorite, say those who watch such things, is Kevin Schneider, who currently runs the court services division and who has held several posts since joining the department in 1981. …

As expected, District Judge Brad McCall has postponed the trial in the Christopher Godfrey lawsuit until June 3. It had been scheduled for January, but the retirement of lawyer George LaMarca messed things up, and the new lawyers, who are from a different firm, have to have time to get up to speed. LaMarca was defending the state and the individual defendants — including former Gov. Terry Branstad and current Governor Kim Reynolds — and had collected $987,849.80 in fees from the state for his work in the discrimination, defamation and retaliation lawsuit, which was filed in January of 2012.

If Godfrey wins, the state also will have to pay the fees for his lawyer, Roxanne Conlin. After the trial — and probably an appeal — the combined fees could easily reach $3 million. Essentially, the suit is about a cut in pay that would have totaled about $150,000 over the remaining 46 months in Godfrey’s term as the state’s Workers Compensation Commissioner. Branstad has never been clear about why he cut Godfrey’s pay, though Godfrey was a Democrat and at the time the only openly gay department head in the Branstad administration. …

Blogger Laurie Belin again has proved she is one of the best investigative reporters in the state. Relentlessly going through public documents, she discovered that Gov. Kim Reynolds’ appointment of Jason Besler to a district judgeship in Cedar Rapids violated the Iowa Constitution. She simply didn’t make the appointment in time. And she or her staff misled Chief Justice Mark Cady and others about it.

Here’s the issue: After a judicial nominating commission sends the Governor the names of candidates — usually two or three — for a judicial opening, the Governor has 30 days to make the appointment. It must be made in writing and filed with the office of the Secretary of State, the Iowa Code says. In the case of Besler, the Governor missed the June 21 deadline by several days.

The Supreme Court raised an eyebrow, but Reynolds’ staff told the Court and the press that the appointment was made on time. It wasn’t, Belin proved. The letter to Besler telling him of his appointment was undated — that’s as suspicious as it is unusual — and the letter that Reynolds and Secretary of State Paul Pate signed confirming the appointment was backdated, Belin discovered. (Earlier, CITYVIEW filed a Freedom of Information request with Pate’s office seeking a copy of the letter with a “date received” stamp. The Secretary has yet to respond.)

All of this could be written off as carelessness or sneakiness or dumbness, except for one thing: If Besler’s appointment was unconstitutional, does he have the power to sit as a judge? Let’s say, for example, a man in Cedar Rapids murders a woman and faces a non-jury trial in Besler’s courtroom. Let’s say Besler sentences him to life in prison without parole. Let’s say the man appeals, saying Besler wasn’t a constitutionally appointed judge.

What does the court do? …

A family whose two pricey homes bordering the Wakonda Club were heavily damaged in that big rainfall on June 25 is suing the engineering firm and the builder, alleging the engineering firm “failed to provide accurate information and recommendations regarding storm water run-off and water drainage” and the builder improperly developed and built the homes.

The defendants are McClure Engineering Co. and Wakonda Living LLC, a subsidiary of Hubbell Homes.

The plaintiffs are Thomas, Amy and Katherine Donnelly. Thomas Donnelly, a retired vice president of Principal Financial Group, and Amy Donnelly own the homes, which are next door to one another. They live in one, Thomas Donnelly’s mother, Katherine, in the other. They say the damage was “catastrophic,” with “the lower living areas filled with water not only causing structural issues but causing the destruction of many irreplaceable personal effects and personal property.” The suit alleges negligence and breach of warranties, among other things.

The homes, built in 2015, are among those lining the north side of the golf course, along Park Avenue. The home at 1700 Park Ave. was purchased by the Donnellys a year ago for $620,970. The home next door, at 1616 Park Ave., was purchased at about the same time for $557,400.

The Donnellys are represented by lawyer Jim Carney, who owns a $1.2 million home in the same row. He says his home was not damaged. …

As expected, District Judge Michael Huppert has issued a default order in the latest ticket-scam case of Marty Tirrell. The judge ordered Tirrell to pay $43,006.63, plus interest and costs, to Doug DeYarman, the managing partner of Shottenkirk Chevrolet in Waukee. DeYarman said he advanced that sum to Tirrell for tickets to this year’s Super Bowl, but that Tirrell kept the money and never provided the tickets. Tirrell never showed up in court. He now has about $3 million in judgments against him. DeYarman’s chance of collecting is roughly the same as the chances of the Cleveland Browns going to next year’s Super Bowl. …

What appears to be the last claim against the estate of Kirk Blunck apparently has been settled out of court. Earlier this summer, Jeffrey and Marylou Tyler dismissed their claim. The Tylers had hired Blunck to be architect and general contractor for work on their home at 2814 Forest Drive, but they alleged that he botched the job and sued his estate for a minimum of $250,000. A trial had been set for August. Blunck, a well-known architect, died under puzzling circumstances on a Sunday afternoon in January 2016. He fell or was shoved to his death in a stairwell of the East Village’s Teachout Building, which he owned, leaving a trail of claims and lawsuits and messy finances. No charges were brought, but the family believes he was murdered and filed a wrongful death action against Zachary Allen Gaskill, a convicted burglar who was on probation at the time. Gaskill never showed up in court, which entered a default judgment for $6,250,000 against him. Gaskill was released from probation early this year, according to records of the Iowa Bureau of Corrections.

Chances for recovery against him are roughly the same as chances for collecting judgments from Tirrell. ♦

One Comment

  1. Laura Belin says:

    Thank you for highlighting the unconstitutional appointment of Jason Besler and attempts by the governor’s staff to cover it up. Here is my investigative report, for those interested in reading more.

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