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Keokuk Considering Legal Action Over Dispatch Center

Jason Parrott
The future of Lee County's centralized dispatch center remains in question, and could be going before a judge.

The agreement that created Lee County’s consolidated emergency dispatch center (LeeComm) is set to expire on June 30 and there is no deal in place to extend it that has the signature of all ten members. It appears that will not change anytime soon, which means the future of the system might soon be in the hands of a judge.

Keokuk City Administrator Aaron Burnett said the city is acting as if it will no longer be a member of LeeComm on July 1.

“Keokuk is moving forward with its own dispatch,” said Burnett. “We are currently exploring what needs to happen at our police station to take that over. We’ve had conversations with statewide agencies and we’ve also had conversations with vendors on updating the dispatch equipment that we currently have from when Keokuk previously had a dispatch center.”

It’s been seven years since a Keokuk employee sat inside a small office just off the front door of the police station, answering 911 calls and assisting people entering the building. Now, all calls are answered inside the Lee County jail complex near Montrose.

The LeeComm oversight board drafted an agreement to continue the consolidated service for another five years. It was approved by a majority of the board and signed by nine of the ten members, including Lee County and Fort Madison.

Keokuk remains the lone hold-out.

Burnett has described the five-year extension a “flawed document" on multiple occasions. He said the city is specifically concerned about the duration of the extension, the steps required to amend it, the lack of a clear “exit clause” for members, and the procedures for addressing member complaints.

“We have a responsibility to the taxpayers and citizens of Keokuk to ensure the highest quality service possible and accountability for how their tax dollars are spent by an entity,” said Burnett.

Burnett said that responsibility extends to learning answers to some key questions regarding Keokuk’s future in LeeComm if it does not sign the extension:

  • Can Keokuk remain a member of LeeComm?
  • Can Keokuk maintain representation on LeeComm’s oversight board?
  • Will LeeComm have to continue dispatching services to Keokuk?
  • Will Keokuk residents help pay for LeeComm if the city is no longer a member?

Burnett said he’s spent weeks trying to get answers to these questions from the LeeComm board to no avail, so he said the city must look for help elsewhere.
“Unfortunately, I think we are moving towards litigation because of inaction to address the questions of Keokuk by the [LeeComm] Control Board and LeeComm,” said Burnett. “I specifically asked multiple questions, and we were never able to achieve answers.”

Burnett said the city does not want to take legal action, but it has been preparing for it as the city council has met several times behind closed doors to discuss “potential litigation.” It appears those discussions made their way to the full LeeComm board.

LeeComm Meeting

Debate on LeeComm Extension - 5/19/2016

Burnett spoke openly about the possibility of litigation and Keokuk reopening its dispatch center following the May 19 meeting of the LeeComm oversight board, of which he is a member.

The nine-member board met for nearly two hours in a meeting room on the 1st floor of the south Lee County courthouse. The discussion about extending LeeComm another five years spanned about 35 minutes.

Burnett started to make his case for the board to consider Keokuk’s request to re-open the five-year extension and find a way to address some of the city’s concerns. Burnett’s request drew a quick response from Paul Walker, who as mayor of West Point, represents the smallest cities in the county on the oversight board.

He said the board should not discuss the agreement anymore because there are no valid reasons to do so and because the document was approved months ago.

“You can’t just say, ‘Let’s discuss this today,’” said Walker, holding up a worn copy of Robert’s Rules of Order that he brought for this discussion. “Those valid reasons are usually incorrect information that we received, something wasn’t legally done correct or things like that, which I don’t think anything we have done has been illegal.”

Walker questioned why the board was still talking about an agreement that had nine of ten signatures when there were other things the board should be discussing, such as a series of concerns expressed by the dispatchers regarding their work environment.

Burnett pointed out that he felt there were items in the proposed extension that could be considered “valid reasons” for reopening it for discussion. He said if Keokuk’s concerns are addressed, the board would find it easier to develop solutions for the concerns of the dispatchers and other LeeComm members.

“I’m not forcing anything upon any party within this room,” said Burnett. “I’m hoping that we can address the issues that we have outlined for many months. I mean, these are not new issues that Keokuk brought up. I think the whole time I have been here, we have talked about it.”

Walker responded that Keokuk’s concerns were addressed when the extension was drafted in late December, something Keokuk Police Chief Dave Hinton openly challenged.

“The considerations that we asked for while we were supposed to be working on the [agreement] were not listened to at all. That is the version this board passed,” said Hinton. “So to say that our considerations were listened to, that we all agreed upon it except for Keokuk, is not necessarily accurate. It’s just not right.”

Lee County Sheriff Jim Sholl rejected Keokuk’s notion. He said when the board drafted the final proposal in December, it considered all of Keokuk’s concerns.

“And as a board, [we] voted on what’s out there today as the proposed new agreement,” said Sholl. “So if you want to say we didn’t sit there in those meetings and listen to your considerations, we discussed all of that subject matter in that meeting.”

There was also an attempt to extend the current agreement by two months to allow for further negotiations. It had the support of Burnett, Hinton and Lee County Supervisor Matt Pflug -- al of whom are from Keokuk --  but no one else supported it.

Pflug asked what was wrong with a two month extension, which led to a lengthy exchange:

  • Walker : “It’s two months, when we should be talking about what [the dispatchers] are sitting here for.”
  • Hinton : “Again Paul, this is not a new issue. We’ve talked about what they are sitting in here for for years. This is nothing new.”
  • Neal Gathers (Denmark Fire Chief) : “But we can’t get anything accomplished because we keep hammering back on this 28E.”
  • Hinton: “It’s not because of this. We’ve been talking about [these issues for] years.”
  • Gathers: “Our meetings have been consumed by the 28E.”
  • Hinton: “Not really”
  • Burnett: “The last meeting we did not even discuss it.”
  • Hinton: “We did not even talk about it and then we canceled the meeting before it. To say that is not legitimate. If you want to talk about resolving issues, that’s why we want to visit the [agreement]. The [agreement] that was passed is almost identical to what we have in place now. It has no function or feature to help eliminate these problems and work through them… and that’s a serious problem.”

The back and forth lasted about 35 minutes, getting heated at times. Towards the end, Burnett asked for clarification on the new funding formula, prompting Walker to respond:
“Find out, get a lawyer, find out. I’m tired of being accused of litigation against us and stuff like that.”

Sholl also took it upon himself to sum up what he felt was the consensus of the board for Burnett.

“Aaron, I think the flavor around the table is a big no,” he said before encouraging Burnett to simply sign the five-year extension because it could be renegotiated in two years.

Burnett said he could not count on that renegotiation occurring.

“The two-year review requires a vote of five people to open up any section. A vote of five members, we are back at the same situation we are at now,” said Burnett. “We have, obviously, we can see it within Lee County, the issue of the North/South divide within Lee County. I think we are all lying if we don’t think that doesn’t exist. It plays out on the Board of Supervisors and I think it is playing out at this table.”

Burnett took Walker’s statement to “get a lawyer” and the rest of the discussion back to the Keokuk City Council, which met a few hours after the LeeComm Board.

In response, the city council voted in favor of a different LeeComm extension, this one a two-year deal drafted by Lee County Attorney Mike Short.

Burnett said it would have no real significance, other than showing that the city is willing to remain in LeeComm -- just not on someone else’s terms. 

Jason Parrott is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.