By Brenden West
CLINTON — Citizens and city officials expressed resentment Tuesday night conjoined with a sentiment that a dark period of Clinton legal troubles can be put to rest four years after they started to snowball.
The debate over whether to appeal Clinton County District Court Judge Nancy Tabor’s ruling in the Citizens for Open Government lawsuit against the City of Clinton was fairly one-sided, drawing a 6-1 council vote to not appeal the decision. Since the vote took place in the council’s Committee of the Whole meeting, the matter will appear again during Clinton’s next regular council meeting in the form of a resolution recommending Clinton accept Tabor’s ruling.
Or, in the words of one citizen, “bite the pill” and admit the wrongdoings.
“Get out of the lawsuit business, it’s not working for you,” said Jan Hansen, another resident who spoke publicly on the matter. “How do you expect to grow when you’re living in the past?”
If and/or when that resolution is adopted, the city will pay $40,680 in legal fees pertaining to the case as well as $40 in court costs. Those fees add to millions stemming from Clinton’s recent legal woes: a $4.5 million Medicare fraud settlement in 2010 and a failed lawsuit against attorney Michael Walker for legal malpractice last fall.
Councilmen John Rowland and Ed O’Neill -- former CFOG members -- both took issue with a public memo written by City Administrator Jessica Kinser prepping them on the matter. The memo relayed information from legal counsel Cynthia Sueppel and an outsourced attorney, Drew Chambers. It stated Rowland and O’Neill risked a potential conflict of interest for their roles in CFOG and recommended they abstain from the appeal discussion.
Both councilmen confirmed they risked no such violation.
“On the matter regarding the conflict of interest in the case of CFOG versus the City of Clinton, I have no conflict of interest,” O’Neill said. “Attorney Sueppel is the one who raised this issue for only one reason: because there is no reasonable expectation that she can win the case on an appeal, and I know she does not want input from me.”
O’Neill said he resigned from CFOG in January prior to assuming his current role with the city and stood no gain from the ruling. Likewise, Rowland contacted the Iowa American Civil Liberties Union and received a letter confirming he had no conflict of interest. Letter in hand, he pointedly asked for evidence otherwise.
“I would certainly like to see any information attorney Chambers has relating to any conflict of interest I have especially when the Iowa ACLU statement is that I do not have a conflict of interest with the open records case,” he said.
Both councilmen said after the meeting they took offense to being named in the memo, and considered the document “an attack.”
“We raised hell and stood up for ourselves,” O’Neill said. “I don’t need Drew Chambers, (city attorney) John Frey or anyone else telling me if I’ve got a conflict of interest. There’s no gain in this for me.”
Sueppel, who was appointed by the Iowa Communities Assurance Pool (Clinton’s insurance provider) to represent the city in the CFOG case, was on hand to answer questions. She refuted Rowland and O’Neill’s claims that she was recommending the city appeal Tabor’s ruling or that she alleged their conflicts of interest.
“I was asked to come here to provide information to give you options, not to make the decision,” Sueppel said. “That is for you to make... My role is simply that I represented you in the CFOG case and to give information. It is not my role whatsoever to address whether there’s a conflict of interest. That is far beyond what my role is in this case.”
She added the city is faced with three options: appeal the judgment, pursue a lower settlement or accept the decision.
A formal resolution against pursuing appeal will appear before the council during its next regular meeting on March 11. The city has until March 17 to file an appeal if the council reverses its decision.