MUSCATINE — A District Court Judge ruled Tuesday the Muscatine City Council’s removal of Mayor Diana Broderson from office last May was a violation of her right to due process.
Muscatine County District Court Judge Mark Cleve issued a final ruling, vacating the city council’s impeachment vote and requiring the defendants —the city and city council — to pay the mayor’s legal fees.
“The people are not pleased at the expense that has been spent of the taxpayers’ money to go through all of this, and even so there’s only two weeks left to the election, so this was a lot of money spent for nothing really,” Broderson said in an interview. “And to pit neighbor against neighbor in our community — it was bad decisions all throughout.”
Broderson said she was pleased the judge ruled in her favor before the election on Nov. 7, in which she is seeking a second term.
“This is a win for the people, not just a win for me,” she said. “The people’s voice is what put me in office. In fact, the current council thought they could take away the people’s voice by a vote. But this goes to a great deal to say, ‘no, you can’t.’”
Broderson first took office in 2016, and almost immediately, contention arose between herself, council members and the city administrator. The city council claimed Broderson was overstepping her authority as mayor, violating the city code and making “false and baseless” allegations against the city.
Last winter, the council ordered the city attorney to file written charges of removal against the mayor. The council retained retired judge John Nahra as a prosecutor and held 20 hours of removal hearings at city hall. In May, the council voted unanimously to remove her from office.
The mayor appealed the vote in district court, arguing the council violated her right to a fair trial, by overseeing the removal proceedings and not taking the case to court immediately. About a month later, a district court judge reinstated Broderson as mayor, and she has been awaiting a final ruling on her appeal ever since.
While Broderson also claimed her conduct did not rise to the level of “willful misconduct and maladministration of office,” which the council would be required to prove for a public official’s removal, the judge stuck to the issue of due process. At a minimum, Cleve said due process requires a fair trial in a fair tribunal.
First, the judge said the city council violated Broderson’s right to due process by intermingling the functions of investigator, prosecutor and judge. In order to understand the council’s process in the mayor’s removal, he examined transcripts of five closed session meetings, held by the council to discuss litigation.
At multiple closed meetings, the judge said the city attorney and council members discussed the mayor’s “alleged transgressions” and how to go about the removal process. At the Dec. 15, 2016 meeting, the city attorney told the council it needed to decide what the end goal was in regard to the mayor: “whether it was to remove her or just weaken her to ensure she would lose the next election.”
The council voted to determine its “end goal,” with all but two council members voting in favor of removing the mayor from office, according to the judge. By the Jan. 5, 2017 meeting, six of the seven councilmen were in favor of removing the mayor. The judge said it is important to note that vote took place prior to the filing of charges or holding the removal hearings.
Despite hiring a special prosecutor, the judge said the council had done a substantial amount of investigating and strategizing before the hearings. Also, the council voting 6-1 to remove the mayor before the hearing had been scheduled “shows the council had a ‘will to win.’”
“Due process requires a fair trial before a fair tribunal, not simply the empty appearance of fairness,” the judge wrote in the final ruling.
Cleve argued the city council also violated Broderson’s right to a fair trial because the councilmen had an interest in the outcome. City Administrator Gregg Mandsager considered bringing a defamation suit against the mayor, and the attorney claimed Broderson defamed numerous people, including the councilmen.
The judge said it is also “clear from the record that the city council believed that the mayor had damaged the council’s reputation in the community.”
He said the mayor accused the council of being bullies and “good ol’ boys,” for not supporting her and taking away her powers. She also claimed the council discriminated against her because of her gender and also spoke to the city attorney about one council member allegedly breaking the law.
"The Court makes no determination as to the accuracy and soundness of any or all of the mayor's statements, allegations, or complaints, as they were known to the defendants at the time of the removal hearing,” Cleve wrote.
He continued, “However, when the council made the decision to remove the mayor from office, the councilmembers had strong interest in shielding themselves from potential personal liability, in preventing the council from being the focus of further accusations, and in restoring its image in the community while negatively impacting the mayor's image."
In summary, the judge ruled the Muscatine City Council violated Broderson’s right to a fair trial, sustaining her appeal, vacating the removal vote, as well as requiring the city and council to pay her legal fees.
The City Council could now accept the judge’s final ruling or appeal the decision.