MUSCATINE — A Muscatine County district court judge will consider why Mayor Diana Broderson was removed from office, and if it was constitutional, at a final hearing Monday at 9 a.m. in the Muscatine County Courthouse.
She was removed from office by the City Council May 11, but on June 14, a district court judge ruled she should be reinstated temporarily, until the case could be heard in court.
While the contention between the council and mayor has been public since early last year, Muscatine residents are still left to question how Broderson became the first mayor in recorded Iowa history to be impeached by a city council.
Aldermen and City Administrator Gregg Mandsager have alleged Broderson made unfounded allegations about city leaders and staff, violated city code and sparked investigations into Muscatine’s government, which drained taxpayer money and city time.
Broderson has argued she was doing her job — looking into citizen complaints and speaking up when she saw something wrong. She argued the council has worked to reduce or remove her powers since her first day in office, and it has been the council’s choice to spend money on investigations and the removal process.
Aldermen argue Broderson has spent her first term making unsubstantiated and unwarranted complaints about the city government, leading to a waste of money and resources.
“[The council’s] issue is that they’ve had to spend money because I have made complaints,” Broderson said. “But what they never address is that they are not my issues. They are (from) citizens who came to me with concerns. I am simply the conduit.”
One of her first questions was whether she was being treated differently because of her gender. She did not file a complaint, she said, but at the end of an email to city officials, she asked if city officials were treating her poorly because she is female.
Alderman Michael Rehwaldt said it was later brought up at a meeting, because such an allegation could not go unaddressed.
“We all heard her say it, and the investigation was triggered by the law,” Rehwaldt said. “We don’t want to spend money on that, but we had to.”
A private firm conducted a month-long, $4,000 investigation into gender bias in Muscatine’s government, and city officials said the accusations came back unfounded.
As time went on, Rehwaldt said a key issue was Broderson’s choices for nominations to various boards and commissions.
Rehwaldt alleges the mayor chose residents unqualified to sit on boards. Broderson argued she was adding diversity to boards and commissions, and attempting to appoint members from various socio-economic backgrounds.
Rehwaldt said about 13 of the 17 nominations Broderson made were approved by the council, but many of her initial appointments did not receive the support of aldermen, and about 11 of those approved nominations were reappointments.
After a special meeting June 23, 2016, the city council voted to remove her nominating powers and create a special appointment committee, which includes the mayor, the two at-large aldermen and a city employee.
Alderman Tom Spread said the motion eventually passed 7-0. He argued the change in ordinance had “nothing to do with the quality of candidates offered by the mayor.”
“In my view, the proposal was and remains a matter of process improvement,” Spread said. “In fairness, the mayor did indicate to me in council chambers that she did not like the code change and that… she felt no obligation under (what was then) current code to collaborate with the council or anyone else with respect to her appointees.”
Supporters picketed outside of City Hall after the decision, Broderson said.
“Essentially you’re taking away the checks and balances,” she said. “It was then the mayor picked, the council approved, that’s a check and a balance. They want the council to pick and the council to approve. You never want all of the power to be in one place, that’s where you run into problems.”
Broderson argued the city council was working to “dwindle” her powers down to nothing. Aldermen argued Broderson was over-stepping her authority and attempting to bring about a “strong-mayor” form of government.
Aldermen and the city administrator said Broderson was coached at least three times in closed-sessions as to the scope of her authority, and was also provided with information and the opportunity to participate in training regarding her role as mayor.
20 hours of testimony, 3 minute meeting
After a year of allegations, investigations and the spending of more than $100,000 of taxpayer money — according to documents obtained by the Muscatine Journal — aldermen voted to have City Attorney Matt Brick file written charges to remove the mayor. The charges included 36 instances where Broderson had made “false accusations” or “violated city code.”
Iowa code sets out two procedures when a city moves to impeach a mayor: Immediately take the case to district court or have the council run the proceedings and vote on the removal.
Broderson’s lawyer, William Sueppel, asked aldermen to take the case to court right away, which the council voted down 4-3.
“Although it was a mixed vote, we felt the hearing would put a lot of daylight on these situations that before had been behind the curtain,” Rehwaldt said. “That was the best reason to do it in the world, so people could understand what was going on.”
Rehwaldt said “in retrospect, I’d do it the same way again,” because residents needed a “vehicle” to find out what was going on between the mayor and council.
There were more than 18 hours of testimony and legal arguments, with mayor pro tem Bob Bynum presiding and retired judge John Nahra was retained as special counsel by the city. He called more than 10 witnesses, mostly city employees, who testified about Broderson’s direct contact with staff. City code requires the mayor to go through the city administrator before contacting city staff.
“The reason the city, council and the mayor are prohibited by code from meeting with city staff is simple, (the staff) have one boss,” who is the city administrator, Rehwaldt said.
Broderson said she felt the council was attempting to stop her from talking to staff at all, including greeting them at city hall or asking basic questions.
“I’ve never given directives to staff,” Broderson said. “Where before other mayors, and the current city council, will go to a department head and ask for an explanation. I can’t do that.”
“There are instances where members of the council had gone directly, but the overwhelming majority of the time, if we want to talk to staff we’ll copy Gregg (Mandsager) so he knows about it,” Rehwaldt said. “It’s a simple courtesy and following the rules.”
Following the hearings and the filing of briefs by the lawyers, on May 11, in a Muscatine City Council meeting that lasted less than three minutes, aldermen voted 7-0 to remove the mayor from office. Alderman Harvey read a written statement before the council voted. There was no discussion.
“There are no winners as a result of the removal process,” Alderman Tom Spread said, in an interview. “There are those in town who believe that elections have consequences and that the council should have not acted as it did. I respectfully disagree, all elected officials are accountable for their words and actions; the waste of city resources is not an acceptable consequence.”
Broderson was out of office for about a month before her case was first heard in Muscatine County District Court, and District Judge Mark Smith ultimately ordered her reinstated while her case was pending.
Broderson said not much has changed.
“They never spoke to me before so it’s nothing new,” she said.
Final hearing in district court
On Monday, District Judge Mark Cleve will consider whether the council’s removal proceedings were constitutional.
Lawyers for Broderson and the city will present evidence and testimonies from the removal hearings and argue whether Broderson deserved to be ousted.
Rehwaldt said the main point is Broderson violated city code with intent.
“After being counseled, she kept doing these things over and over again, willfully,” Rehwaldt said. “The first time can be a mistake, but after all that counseling, she willfully violated the code of ethics and other portions of the city code.”
Broderson said her main issue is the council violated her right to a fair trial. In the ruling to reinstate Broderson, the judge said there is a “probability” the council’s proceedings will be found unconstitutional.
The judge could rule from the bench or issue an order. If he rules in her favor, it could void her impeachment. The city council and administrator would then have to decide whether to accept the ruling or appeal.