MUSCATINE — The former city manager of West Liberty has filed a civil rights complaint against Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren and officials in the sheriff’s office.
Chris Ward, who now lives in Vinton, Iowa, filed the complaint Nov. 22 against Muscatine County, Ostergren, law enforcement officer Quinn Riess, former sheriff Dave White and current Muscatine County Sheriff C.J. Ryan. The complaint claims Ostergren and the sheriff’s office “maliciously” charged Ward with felonious misconduct in office, because he allegedly initiated an illegal hike in West Liberty’s electricity rates.
When Ward became city administrator in 2004, the city council was setting electricity rates based on a 1998 ordinance. In 2007, the council attempted to change the ordinance to set lower rates, but Ward’s attorney argues council members did not repeal the 1998 ordinance, which would be required by law.
From May 2013 to January 2014, West Liberty utility customers were charged the higher 1998 rate.
In October 2013, Ward was fired on a 4-1 vote of the West Liberty City Council because of dissatisfaction with the city’s recycling program, according to court documents.
After leaving West Liberty, Ward was hired as city administrator for Vinton, and in January 2014, West Liberty’s new city manager began to look into the electricity rates. The new city manager determined the electricity rate should be based on the 2007 ordinance, and instructed the utility billing clerk to change the rate, according to court documents.
The state auditor issued a report in October 2014 on a special investigation of the city, finding the 2007 rate was correct. The auditor’s report concluded West Liberty had over billed its customers during the period in which the 1998 rate was assessed.
Court documents allege that electric customers were over billed more than $259,000 during the period, because Ward instructed the city's former administrative assistant to alter the electric rate to use the higher 1998 rate. The administrative assistant also was terminated from her position.
Following the report, the Muscatine County Sheriff’s Office opened a criminal investigation into the utility rates, and in 2015, officers filed a criminal complaint against Ward. He was charged with felonious misconduct in office, a class “D” felony.
Ostregren later filed trial information against Ward, charging him with two crimes related to the utility rates: misconduct in office, a class “D” felony, and third-degree fraudulent practices, an aggravated misdemeanor, according to court documents.
In February, the Vinton City Council discussed the charges in closed session, according to local television station KCRG, which reported Ward had “100 percent” support from council members.
Ostergren then allegedly emailed the Vinton city attorney, arguing the Vinton City Council illegally convened the closed session to discuss Ward, according to the civil rights complaint.
According to the court filing, the following month, Ostergren filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board regarding the closed session. The board dismissed the complaint as legally insufficient, according to Ward’s attorney.
Ward pleaded not guilty to both charges. In the motion to dismiss, his lawyer Alfredo Parrish said the 2007 rate was not correctly adopted and therefore not in effect at the time residents were billed.
Residents were refunded the charges as a credit on their bills.
In August 2015, the district court dismissed the fraudulent practices charge, but denied the motion to dismiss the felony charge, according to court documents. Ward appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which transferred the case to the Iowa Court of Appeals.
In its decision filed in March 2017, the Iowa Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the district court decision and remanded for dismissal the charge of misconduct in office, according to the ruling.
“The State conceded West Liberty’s 2007 ordinance did not properly repeal the 1998 ordinance, yet charged Ward with a crime predicated on repeal of the 1998 ordinance,” the court wrote. “This was error.”
Ward’s lawyer argues because of the charges, the former city administrator endured mental and emotional distress, and continues to suffer from damage to his reputation. In the civil rights complaint, Parrish demanded a trial by jury.
In Ward’s complaint, Ostergren and Riess are accused of a civil rights violation, claiming they filed charges against Ward without probable cause and with malice. Other counts against Ostergren and Riess include a violation of the right to be free from unreasonable restraints on personal liberty, and a charge of malicious prosecution. Ostergren also is accused of abuse of process and intentional interference with a third-party contract.
Ward also filed a civil rights violation against Muscatine County, for unreasonable restraints on personal liberty. In addition, he accused Muscatine County, and the former and current sheriffs, of respondeat superior — having vicarious liability for the acts of their agents.
Ostergren's lawyer, Jason Palmer, of Bradshaw, Fowler, Proctor and Fairgrave P.C., submitted a statement to the Muscatine Journal following the filing of the complaint.
“We will vigorously defend against what we believe are baseless allegations and are confident that both the law and facts are on our side,” Palmer said.
Ward's lawyer did not respond for comment by press time Thursday.