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University Heights developing public records request policy after council member's complaint

City officials following advice of Iowa Public Information Board

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UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS — Just one week after a city council member was removed as a committee chairwoman after she filed a public records complaint against her own city, the council is meeting to discuss a public records policy.

The University Heights City Council has scheduled a special meeting for 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 1004 Melrose Ave., to go over the draft of a policy that would detail how officials are to handle public records requests. Margaret Johnson, deputy director of the Iowa Public Information Board, said although a policy isn’t required, she suggested city officials draft one and turn it into the board by Nov. 4 — before the IPIB’s next meeting.

Johnson said instituting a policy is the most convenient way for a government body to ensure public records requests are handled properly, which includes designating an official custodian and laying out fees it can charge for records.

The driving force behind the development of a policy is a formal public records complaint filed in September with the IPIB by City Council member Silvia Quezada after she said Mayor Wally Heitman denied her public records.

Quezada said residents were asking her questions about whether a satellite dish in a yard of a house at Sunset Street and Melrose Avenue was allowed by city code. She said she wanted to be better informed on the issue so she sent requests to Heitman to copy her on all emails regarding building and zoning issues.

Heitman replied, in part, “I am doing enough work now that I will not take time to fulfill this request.” He sent another email to Board of Adjustment Chairwoman Ann Dudler saying in part, “Do not do anything. Ignore the message and if you receive more such emails please simply forward them to me.”

He said because Quezada was no longer on the city’s building committee, she didn’t need the emails.

In a memo to council, University Heights Attorney Steven Ballard outlined his arguments against the complaint — including a detail that Quezada didn’t ask the right person for records and the request should have gone to the city clerk. However, Johnson said that while the city doesn’t yet have a policy set up with a designated custodian, the responsibility defaults to the City Council for making sure everything happens properly.

The complaint was a topic of discussion at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, in which city officials butted heads with Quezada. The council acted to remove her as chairwoman of the zoning committee and directed Ballard to defend the city against the complaint.

Quezada said city officials felt like she asked too many questions but she said that’s her responsibility as a representative of University Heights.

“I was shocked because I had no indication this was coming,” Quezada said of being removed as head of the zoning committee. “I’m interpreting this to be a direct retaliation.”

Heitman said he asked for a motion to remove her as chairwoman not for retaliation but rather as a “consequence” for “rude” and “inappropriate” behavior recently. He said he already thought about making the change before the complaint was filed.

Quezada believes her poor relationship with Heitman can be traced back to May when she spoke out against the council’s decision to help Oaknoll Retirement Community receive benefits like a lower loan interest rate. Heitman said he apologized to Oaknoll staff because of it.

“It seems like the last several months there’s been more confrontation and debate among the counselors and mayor,” said council member Jim Lane.

Lane along with members Mike Haverkamp and Jerry Zimmermann voted to remove Quezada as zoning committee chairwoman while member Dotti Maher abstained and Quezada voted no. Quezada was also removed as chairwoman of the building committee in June, with Heitman citing similar concerns.

Lane said he felt like Quezada could have asked Ballard for help and solved the issue internally rather than filing the official complaint, which is expected to cost the city $3,000 or more in legal fees.

“I just hadn’t seen enough change in behavior, that’s why I confirmed it,” Lane said.

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