Iowa League of Cities representative shares guidance on council best practices Thursday

T-R PHOTO BY ROBERT MAHARRY Mickey Shields from the Iowa League of Cities addressed the Marshalltown city council about best practices and took several questions on Thursday over the noon hour.

In light of recent issues that have arisen with the council and city staff “trying to navigate through grants and an election” sans a full-time city administrator, Marshalltown Mayor and Acting City Administrator Joel Greer arranged to host Mickey Shields from the Iowa League of Cities for a presentation and question and answer session on council best practices at city hall over the lunch hour Thursday.

With six of seven councilors present (Barry Kell was absent), Shields introduced himself and provided some basic information on the different forms of city government in Iowa — Marshalltown is one of 200 cities in the state with a city administrator position, although it isn’t currently filled. As he explained them, Councilor and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Ladehoff brought up a question he had raised in the past about whether the mayor could vote in the event that a councilor is absent to break a tie.

The answer is no, according to Shields, as only a few cities in the state that have an even number of councilors can use the mayor to break a tie. Another recurring theme throughout the meeting was following open meetings laws, and Shields warned the council not to abuse subcommittees even if they are only composed of a few members.

“It’s fine to use them, but you’ve still gotta be cautious on the open meetings laws,” he said.

Councilors cannot be paid city employees while simultaneously serving on the council, but they can be hired as contractors in some circumstances if a competitive bidding process is followed — granted, of course, that he or she doesn’t vote on awarding the contract. Shields also stressed the importance of funneling things “through the proper channels” and following the chain of command.

Ladehoff said that when he previously served on the council about 25 years ago, he was told the city did not have to protect councilors, liability wise, if they did not follow proper procedures of going “up the scale” to department heads and the city administrator. Shields said it can be true, and it’s always safer to follow that course of action — and more generally, for elected officials to stay in their lanes. Greer also noted that both he and the mayor pro tem are required to be bonded.

Fellow Councilor Greg Nichols asked if the council could be sued for a decision someone disagrees with, and Shields responded that public entities are often easy targets, though frivolous lawsuits are usually quickly dismissed. Generally speaking, he said, simply voting on a matter doesn’t create exposure for the city.

Councilor Gary Thompson wondered what a city employee with a complaint who can’t get past a “gatekeeper” to the city attorney should do, and Shields said that in some situations, staff members are simply “complainers” who can’t be satiated. If there is a justified complaint, he recommended modifying the policy or involving someone else like the human resources director or the city administrator to help in handling them.

Thompson also asked if employees and councilors are protected by whistleblower policies, and Shields said they generally were. Going in the other direction, Greer sought advice about a situation where councilors were going directly to staff members and telling them how to do their jobs.

He reiterated the importance of following the chain of command and implored the councilors not to make promises to members of the public or city employees about voting a certain way on agenda items.

“You should never, ever indicate how you’re gonna vote outside of this room, outside of the council chambers, even to friends and neighbors,” Shields said.

If an agenda item comes before the council with no public or council comment and passes on a split vote, Thompson was curious if someone on the losing side should wonder what was done “behind the scenes.”

“This is one that comes up all the time. It’s one of those things where I never want to assume that that means people are talking outside of the council meeting, but I understand why they assume that,” Shields said. “I would rather assume that it means all of you did your homework, you’re well prepared for the council meetings, you’ve read your packet and information and the reason there’s no discussion is because you’re so informed.”

The safest course of action is always to avoid discussing city business outside of meetings, he added. Greer also raised the scenario of councilors spending too much time with city staff investigating an issue, and Shields reiterated his comments on following the chain of command and allowing staff to notify the city administrator if such a problem persists.

Citing a few real-life examples like the recent information sessions at the public library regarding the Local Options Sales and Service Tax (LOSST) renewal and the Marshalltown Area Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Outlook Breakfast with Iowa Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham, Greer questioned whether three or more councilors attending would constitute an open meetings violation.

For social or ministerial purposes, Shields said, a quorum gathering is totally fine as long as city business is not discussed during the event, using a ribbon cutting as an example. In the modern era, another major issue is mass texts or reply all emails, which Shields described as the biggest growing concern related to open meetings laws.

In a likely reference to the recent departure of former City Administrator Joe Gaa, Greer raised the concern of councilors going public with comments that should be made in a closed session. Shields said closed sessions aren’t necessarily required, but they are preferred as a way to protect employees from having their reputations sullied.

Ladehoff felt that a councilor disparaging an employee by name wasn’t the right thing to do in an open session, and Shields said it wasn’t a violation of open meetings law — in fact, cities can hold open performance reviews if they so choose, though they are rare. He warned, however, that such practices may make municipalities less appealing places to work and embarrass the employees subject to the criticism.

Before the meeting adjourned, Thompson raised another question about conflicts of interest, noting that he had abstained from voting when his niece was employed by a company in consideration for a contract from the city. Shields said the biggest test of whether a conflict exists is personal financial gain, and it’s usually on the safe side to abstain if there is any appearance of such conflict.

“What’s legally right and wrong is different than what’s morally and ethically right and wrong, so do we go by the letter of the law? If it’s not putting money in our pocket, do we vote on everything, or what do we do?” Thompson asked.

Greer cited his position as the secretary of TRAILS Inc. when he was a councilor and the legal determination that it wasn’t ultimately a conflict of interest to vote on action related to it as he wasn’t gaining anything monetarily. When the meeting adjourned after just over an hour, Greer told the T-R he hoped it served as a beneficial reminder for those in attendance.


Contact Robert Maharry

at 641-753-6611 ext. 255 or



Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.38/week.

Subscribe Today