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Keokuk Sues Fire Chiefs, West Point, and Mayor Over Emails

Jun 6, 2016

The city of Keokuk was told during a recent meeting that if it wanted answers about the future of Lee County’s emergency dispatch center, it should “get a lawyer.” The city has, in essence, done just that by filing several lawsuits and preparing for additional legal action.

Keokuk City Attorney Douglas Dorando filed two lawsuits in district court on June 1 on behalf of the city. There are a total of six defendants between the two filings.

  • Lawsuit 1 : Keokuk vs Lee County Fire Chiefs Association & Neil Gathers (President)
  • Lawsuit 2 : Keokuk vs West Point, Paul Walker (Mayor), Gary Menke (City Administrator) & Diane Smith (City Clerk).

In fact, it was Walker who told Keokuk City Administrator Aaron Burnett to “get a lawyer.” 

  Keokuk is accusing the six defendants of violating Iowa’s open records law by not turning over certain information to the city as previously requested.

BACKGROUND:

Lee County, it's eight incorporated cities which includes Keokuk and Fort Madison) along with the Lee County Emergency Management Commission signed a 28E agreement in 2009 to create LeeComm, which is the county’s centralized emergency dispatch center. It replaced the centers that were operating in Keokuk, Fort Madison and Lee County.

LeeComm has an Executive Director and a nine-member oversight board consisting of:

  • Keokuk Police Chief
  • Fort Madison Police Chief
  • Lee County Sheriff
  • Keokuk City Representative
  • Fort Madison City Representative
  • Lee County Board Representative
  • E911 Board Member
  • Lee County Fire Chief’s Association Representative
  • Emergency Management Commission Representative

The agreement that created LeeComm expires at the end of this month on June 30, 2016, so members of the board developed a multi-year extension. It has been approved by the county, the emergency management commission and seven of Lee County’s eight incorporated cities.

Inside Lee County's emergency dispatch center
Credit Jason Parrott / TSPR

  The lone holdout has been Keokuk. The city has repeatedly said the multi-year extension is a flawed document that it would not sign over concerns about the language, the duration, the enforcement and the overall legality.

As the deadline approached, Keokuk asked the rest of the members of LeeComm and the oversight board, on numerous occasions, what would happen if Keokuk is no longer a member of LeeComm. Not getting the answers it sought during public meetings, the city used another approach.

It filed Freedom of Information Requests with the members of LeeComm and the oversight board seeking all correspondence related to the dispatch center during the previous 12 months. It also sent a series of questions for the recipients to answer.

The city received plenty of feedback, but it felt some was missing, prompting the filing of the lawsuits.

OPEN RECORDS LAWSUITS

The lawsuits each provide a detailed timeline of events that led up to all parties involved, except for Keokuk, signing the multi-year extension of LeeComm. That timeline includes April 7, 2016 as the date Keokuk Mayor Tom Marion mailed the questions and the Freedom of Information requests.

In both lawsuits, Keokuk states:

“The circumstances of the negotiations of the proposed 28E agreement appear to have included the trading of emails, text messages (Cellular SMS Service), and other correspondence between the parties to which the public has a right to and to which [the city of Keokuk] has an interest in.”

Specifically to the lawsuit against the LCFCA and Gathers, Keokuk claims Gathers only provided four documents: three copies of proposed 28E agreements and a series of emails that were distributed to the entire LeeComm oversight board previously.

A LeeComm dispatcher station
Credit Jason Parrott / TSPR

  “[Keokuk] is aware of several emails that included Defendant Neil Gathers as a recipients, both in his capacity as President of the Fire Chief’s Association and as their representative on the [oversight] board. These emails were no provided, nor were any communications, or correspondence beyond those [already] described… [Keokuk] believes additional emails and correspondence exist which were also not provided, but as no good faith effort was made to collect this information, [Keokuk] cannot articulate what it could expect to find.”

Keokuk claims West Point provided just two documents: a set of minutes for a meeting and a resolution. The city said, like Gathers, that it is aware of emails including Defendant Paul Walker as a recipient.

The city is asking the court to force all parties to comply with its request for all documents related to LeeComm during the previous 12 months.

“Due to the unique nature of the organizations at issue in this case, any public harm created by disclosure of these requested documents is far outweighed by the public harm of a joint dispatch center, which cannot function or provide adequate service to Lee County and Keokuk residents.”

The court is also being asked to declare the defendants guilty of violating Iowa’s open records law and compensate the city accordingly.

FURTHER ACTION

Keokuk City Administrator Aaron Burnett told the City Council Thursday night that these would not be the final lawsuits filed in regards to LeeComm. He said City Attorney Douglas Dorando is preparing a yet-to-be determined number of lawsuits aimed at preventing Keokuk from being harmed by not signing the agreement.

“[Keokuk is going] to seek an injunction to protect the city’s interest in dispatch being provided to police and fire and ambulance and also to protect the taxpayers from the collection of taxes in the city of Keokuk for a service that would not be provided to the city,” said Burnett.

He said time is of the essence as the LeeComm agreement expires June 30, 2016, so he said it should be within the next few days that the additional lawsuits are filed.