The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

October 23, 2013

HERALD OPINION: City must move forward

The Clinton Herald

---- — It’s time to look forward.

That’s what the last three weeks have told us. In exclusive coverage from the Clinton Herald, Assistant Editor Katie Dahlstrom spent approximately 90 hours in a Scott County courtroom, detailing the story of how the city settled for $4.5 million with the federal government in 2010, and what led to that decision.

The city felt its attorney, Michael Walker, was negligent in his pursuit of a settlement.

The jury thought differently.

Now the citizens are stuck paying the remainder of $4.5 million settlement made three years ago and more than $750,000 in expenses to prove Walker breached the standard of care.

That’s more than $5 million for the mess created when whistleblower Timothy Schultheis filed a complaint under the federal False Claims Act accusing the city of Medicare and Medicaid fraud.

To hash over the details of why the city settled and whether the city knowingly committed fraud is a discussion we don’t feel necessary at this point.

Instead, the city must learn from its mistakes and move forward with a better governing strategy.

Part of that strategy would be to ask more questions.

Why did the city hire a person who had never heard of the federal statute the city was accused of violating? The city’s attorney, Mike Hannafan, drove home the point that Walker didn’t have the experience necessary to defend the city in a case such as this.

Why weren’t city officials and City Council members questioning Walker’s credentials when they trusted him to serve the city in its best interest?

And when unqualified attorneys suggested taking a $4.5 million settlement, a crippling number for a town decimated with decreasing population and high taxes, why weren’t more red flags raised about that price tag?

Citizens have questioned that amount for years. We believe that amount was far too high for the alleged crime committed.

The knee-jerk reaction by which that decision was made is appalling considering its debilitating effects on the city’s residents. There was still time to do more research and realize the case the city would present would be strong enough to challenge the allegations.

At the time, then-Mayor Rodger Holm said the internal investigation headed by attorneys for the city gave them significant evidence upon which the decision to settle was based.

If the attorneys weren’t qualified to perform that investigation, at least in the words of Hannafan, why weren’t more questions raised?

We’ve seen this before when someone tells City Council members something is in the city’s best interest, like better solid waste pickup, and the city winds up feeling its been sold a bill of goods.

We hope the city learns to do its due diligence when making decisions.

The city also has a lesson to learn from this trial about accepting responsibility instead of placing blame on the people who gave them advice.

Who made the decision to settle? The council approved, but who led them to this decision to settle?

Let’s take responsibility, move on and make a better city.

A forward-step would be for the city to focus on keeping department heads accountable and making sure employees are properly trained.

No matter how someone spins the EMS fiasco, there was a lack of accountability placed on the people in charge, and there were errors made by the city on too many occasions. Was it done with the intent to help the city’s coffers?

We doubt it. But the process was flawed.

City employees should be trained to follow guidelines — no matter how complicated they may be. If this can’t be accomplished and the city is set on delivering the service, then leaders should find another solution as they did when they outsourced ambulance billing. However, the city shouldn’t wait until it’s accused of defrauding the federal government before it recognizes what changes need to be made.

The city must move forward in a transparent way, taking citizens along for the ride.

Even with three weeks of testimony, we still don’t know all of what transpired when council members considered and approved the settlement during a handful of closed sessions.

Without citizen involvement, strides for transparency are made in vain.

Residents are the only ones that can hold their elected officials accountable. And there will be a chance Nov. 5 to voice your opinion. With so many issues facing this city, there’s no excuse for residents to sit idly by, and not cast a vote in the coming weeks.

Make sure the next City Council will move forward in a transparent, accountable way. You are entrusting them with our city.

The city’s progress will be the ultimate judge of how well our leaders have done.