Vinton City Manager Chris Ward told the City Council Thursday night that his two-year legal battle with his former employer is over.
“I won my case,” said Ward, who thanked the council for their support after he was charged with misconduct in office in February of 2015. The council had met with him privately after the case was filed, and expressed its unanimous support. Ward has been Vinton City Manager since May of 2014.
Ward received another unanimous decision from the appeals court this week.
“This was error,” wrote a three-member Appeals Court panel, in its ruling on Wednesday. The court reversed a district judge’s decision not to dismiss the case, and ordered it to be dismissed.
“I’ve already moved on,” said Ward after the meeting.
Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren had filed the felony charge in February of 2015, alleging that by ordering a West Liberty city employee to raise electrical rates without consent of the West Liberty City Council, Ward was “falsifying a public document.” Ward was never accused of stealing any of the money, and after an audit, customers received a rebate – with most residential customers receiving a rebate of $3 to $5 per month for the time period in question.
In September of 2015, Ward’s attorney, Alfredo Parrish of Des Moines, filed a request for a review with the Iowa Supreme Court, alleging that West Liberty actually had two ordinances in effect, and that Ward was following the guidelines set down in the earlier ordinance when he made the call to raise water rates.
Meanwhile, at the same time that the Iowa Supreme Court received Wards appeal, leaders in West Liberty – where the prosecutor had alleged Ward had committed a felony by increasing electrical rates without proper authorization – held hearings after a consultant advised them to raise those rates to levels similar to those Ward directed a city employee to use two years earlier.
Very rarely, a higher court agrees to rule on legal questions before a criminal trial goes to a judge or jury.
Ward’s case became one of those rare occasions on Sept. 28, when Iowa Supreme Court Justice Thomas Dana Waterman filed the order granting the request for discretionary review.
In legal terms, it’s called an “interlocutory” appeal; as with many legal terms, that word comes from a Middle Latin word that means “interruption.” It’s a ruling that allows a case to be interrupted so a higher court can issue an opinion on legal questions.
Both the Motion to Dismiss, filed by Ward’s attorney, Alfredo Parrish of Des Moines; and the Brief in Resistance to the Motion to Dismiss, filed by Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren, highlight the facts of the case and the legal viewpoint of each side.
In February, Ostergren charged Ward with the Class D felony of “misconduct in office,” alleging that Ward violated Iowa Code Section 721.1 (2), which states that “any public officer or employee, who knowingly ‘[f]alsifies any public record, or issues any document falsely purporting to be a public document’ commits felonious misconduct in office.”
The public record that the prosecutor accuses Ward of falsifying is a 2007 ordinance setting electrical rates for the City of West Liberty. However, that ordinance did not include wording to appeal the 1998 ordinance, which allowed the city to bill at a higher rate.
The Motion to Dismiss claimed that the 1998 ordinance is still in effect, and therefore Ward was well within local and state laws to use that ordinance as a billing guideline. The prosecutor, however responded with the legal claim that the 2007 ordinance annuls the 1998 rule, even if it doesn’t mention that ordinance in its text.
Both briefs cited case law and previous rulings on similar issues.
In an interlocutory appeal, case is on hold until the higher court (in this case the Appeals Court assigned to review it by the Iowa Supreme Court) issues its ruling. The case will resume after that ruling, with guidelines from the higher court about how to deal with the legal questions raised in the appeal. In Ward’s case, this week’s ruling means that a district court judge must formally dismiss the case.
History of the West Liberty water rate/city manager controversy
The electrical billing rate change that Ward had authorized, according to a special audit made public in October 2014, went into effect in May of 2013. West Liberty leaders were unaware of the change until discovered by Ward’s successor, Lawrence McNaul, at the beginning of 2014. (McNaul had been the West Liberty Police Chief for only nine months before changing jobs within the city to replace Ward. The West Liberty electrical superintendent has also left his job, for a similar position in Nebraska. A city hall administrative assistant was also fired after the release of the audit.)
That audit by the State Auditor of Iowa (which McNaul requested for other reasons regarding record keeping in West Liberty city government, and not the electrical billing issue) determined that there had been an electric utility overbilling of approximately 27 percent between May/June of 2013 and December/January of 2013/14. The audit indicated that West Liberty electrical customers (including residential, commercial and industrial) were billed more than $259,000 more than the 2007 ordinance had authorized.
Ward was never accused of taking any of the money overbilled; all over-payments went into the city electrical fund.
While for most residential customers, the amount of overbilling was around $5 or less, the West Liberty Foods turkey processing plant was overbilled approximately $149,000 over that time. All overbilled customers received credit for the overbilling earlier this year.
In November of 2014, McNaul told the West Liberty Index newspaper the city was experiencing a “negative $300,000 plus balance every year in the electrical fund” and said that he anticipated an electrical rate increase.
In June of 2015, Verbal Blakey of the BMHG Engineers of Arnold, Mo., told the West Liberty City Council that a rate increase is necessary; his recommendation included rate hikes of more than 25 percent for residential and commercial customers and a nearly 8 percent for industrial customers. The city council held a hearing in July to discuss raising those rates.
In 2016, there was another billing problem in West Liberty, and the city had to re-bill customers for under charging them. Also, at that time, the West Liberty City Council nearly fired McNaul, voting 3-2 to allow him to keep his job.
50-year-old Vinton case cited among precedents
Court rulings typically city several precedents – legal rulings by other courts involving similar issues. In Ward’s case, the Appeals Court cited several precedents, including City of Vinton v. Robert Engledow,
In a 5-4 ruling in 1966, the Iowa Supreme Court had determined that because of a lack of specific ordinance regarding driving on the wrong side of a city street, that charge against Engledow should be dismissed. Engledow, however was charged with reckless driving and the Supreme Court determined that the $100 fine for that offense was “fully justified.”
Below is the Iowa Supreme Court’s 1966 summary of what happened in 1964:
The factual situation of this case will be summarized only briefly. On July 13, 1964, at about noon, Wayne V. Holliday was riding a three-year-old saddle horse with a ten year old boy in front of him in the saddle. The horse was walking at a normal pace on the right hand side of 8th Avenue in Vinton near the edge of the traveled roadway. Defendant approached from behind, drove his car very close to the horse, speeded or “revved” his motor, causing the engine to roar and race as if it were out of gear. The horse balked and jumped sideways as the car drove past. Mr. Holliday shouted to defendant asking him not to do it again. Defendant proceeded up the street, turned around and returned on the wrong side of the road coming very close to the horse, at a speed testified to by Mr. Holliday as 40 miles an hour, came about ten feet away from the horse, turned to the right and applied the brakes. Mr. Holliday was a rider with experience having ridden since he was five years of age, for the past 16 or 17 years. He controlled the horse with difficulty. The court found defendant’s conduct, while driving south, directly toward the horse and so close to it before he turned to the right, was intentional, not inadvertent. The trial court’s more complete findings were substantiated by the record; a finding of reckless driving was fully justified as was the maximum fine of $100. There was no error in this regard.
- We now consider defendant’s second challenge to this conviction which, despite the aggravated nature of defendant’s actions, must be determinative of the case. If it be the fact that the defendant was charged under an invalid ordinance, this conviction cannot be sustained, regardless of our view of the factual situation.
See the complete Ward ruling HERE.
See the historical Supreme Court ruling in Vinton v Engledow HERE.