Letter to council member insufficient to give notice of charges for removal from office

by Gary Taylor

Clark v. City of Sidney
(Iowa Court of Appeals, November 29, 2012)

Clark was elected by popular vote to the city council of the City of Sidney in November 2009 as one of its five at-large members. Regular meetings were held the second Monday of each month, and special meetings at other times. From January 2010 through September 13, 2010, Clark attended five of nine regular meetings and five of ten special meetings.  In June 2010, the attorney for the City sent Clark a letter asserting his failure to attend the last three regularly scheduled meetings rose to the level of “willful or habitual neglect or refusal to perform” his duties under Iowa Code section 66.1(1). This same letter noted that, should Clark continue to be absent, he may be asked to step down or the City may take action to remove him. Despite this warning, Clark failed to attend three subsequent meetings.  In August 2010, Clark received another letter from counsel for the City of Sidney, informing him that a hearing would take place at the September regular meeting of the Council “on written charges filed with the Council of the City of Sidney to remove you as City Council member for the willful or habitual neglect or refusal to perform your duties as a City Council member, for willful misconduct or maladministration as a City Council member and for intoxication as a City Council member.”  The letter was filed with the Council, but no written charges were prepared and filed.

Clark attended the September regular meeting with an attorney. His attorney objected to the removal hearing, stating both he and Clark had “no idea what the complaints” against him were. The mayor, who ran the meetings but did not vote, responded that these complaints were regarding Clark’s attendance and misconduct at a local establishment. No witness was put under oath and the statements were made in a question and answer format. Clark presented several witnesses including his wife, father-in-law, and mother. He stated he missed one meeting due to the death of his father and another due to a no-contact order which forbade him from having contact with another council member’s son and immediate family, which arose out of an altercation between the son and Clark at a local bar. Clark also stated that he could not attend special meetings because their timing conflicted with his work. The City presented no independent witnesses and no written evidence, although the other council members made statements concerning Clark’s failure to attend meetings, with lesser attention paid to the misconduct and intoxication allegations. Following this, a vote of the five council members occurred. The vote was 4-1 in favor of Clark’s removal, with Clark himself casting the lone dissenting vote. Clark appealed his dismissal to the district court through a writ of certiorari, which was dismissed.  He then appealed to the Court of Appeals.

Clark contended the August letter filed with the city council did not comply with the statutory requirements under Iowa Code section 66.29 which states:

Any city officer elected by the people may be removed from office, after hearing on written charges filed with the council of such city for any cause which would be ground for an equitable action for removal in the district court, but such removal can only be made by a two-thirds vote of the entire council.

The district court found that “[o]ther than the letters from the city attorney, there were no other written charges or specifications filed against Mr. Clark.” The city clerk testified the August 2010 letter to Clark from the city attorney was filed with her, and that she stored it with the other city council filings and gave a copy to the mayor. She told Clark before the September hearing that no charges were filed. The letter specifically noted the hearing was “on written charges filed with the Council.” The August letter itself, therefore, was not intended by the council or their attorney to be “written charges.” Observing that the statute requires written charges to be filed and that a court must give a removal statute strict construction, the Court of Appeals found that Clark was required to receive notice of the details of the charges before the council’s hearing in this case. The August certified letter received by Clark restated the language of the removal statute, failed to set forth any specific information regarding the grounds for removal, and referred to written charges filed with the city council that did not exist. The August letter did not fulfill the City’s statutory duty to provide Clark with notice prior to removal.  The Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s decision and remanded the case for entry of an order sustaining the writ of certiorari.

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