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Armstrong mayor shuts down city for a day over clerk reinstatement

Council member Clinton Davis resigned Friday; City practices under investigation by Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation

April 19, 2017
Amy H. Peterson - Staff Writer ( , Estherville News

ARMSTRONG The Armstrong City Council voted 3-2 at its meeting Monday, April 10 to reinstate Kate Staton as city clerk after she had been placed on administrative leave late in 2016.

The administrative leave happened as a result of an investigation by state auditors and the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation (DCI) relating to alleged improprieties in water billing, filing of reports, payment of sales tax, employment withholding taxes, unemployment taxes, plus numerous penalties and late charges incurred from March through November, 2016.

"[Monday, April 17] was supposed to be my first day back," Staton said.

When Staton arrived at Armstrong City Hall, she was locked out, and she waited on the bench outside for someone to let her in.

"I heard some people were coming to protest my reinstatement," Staton said. A letter issued by Mayor Greg Buum stated the action of closing down city hall was "due to the actions of Armstrong City Council members Rhett Hiney, Dan Moore, and Patty Thackery"

Instead, Staton said, "a handful of people showed up to support me and my reinstatement."

Buum eventually came to ask what was going on.

Staton said she was waiting to get into the building to work.

Staton said Buum replied, "You'll have to talk to a locksmith." Buum then handed out a letter stating his directives.

Buum directed the maintenance, police, sewer, water, and maintenance office to "have no direct contact with [Staton]."

Buum stated this was due to "security and integrity of reports and record keeping."

In addition, the mayor, police and maintenance offices were moved to "alternate locations."

Buum concluded by stating, "I as Mayor declare a state of high concern for the City of Armstrong."

A state of high concern is not an official declaration, according to officials from other cities. However, in a state of emergency, Iowa Code provides for a mayor to make certain unilateral decisions. Hence, according to attorneys contacted by the Estherville News, who spoke on condition of staying off the record, it may not have been unlawful for Buum to make the declaration and institute temporary conditions on the city such as conducting city business from alternate locations.

Buum became mayor in a special election May 25, 2016, defeating Patty Thackery 210-201. Former mayor Todd Eisenbacher had served from January 1 to April 4, 2016 after defeating Buum in 2015. Eisenbacher said he had no comment on the situation in Armstrong.

Buum is father-in-law to Armstrong Police Chief Craig Merrill.

On March 29, 2017, Buum indicated city hall would be closed Tuesdays and Thursdays "until we get a full time clerk back in the office."

Tuesday morning, Staton was back at work, and the city offices were open as usual.

Newly appointed city attorney Brian W. Thul of Whittemore said Tuesday morning, "Everything is up and running today, and we are moving forward."

Thul was appointed earlier this month, and said he was new to the situation in Armstrong, but working to get up to speed. Thul is also city attorney for Emmetsburg, Whittemore, and Fenton, and is a past president of the Iowa Municipal Attorneys Association. Thul said he did not advise Buum to declare the state of high concern, nor did he confer with anyone from the city on any of Monday's actions.

Council member Clinton Davis turned in his resignation effective Friday, April 14. A special election will be necessary to replace him.

Council members Rhett Hiney, Dan Moore, and Patty Thackery, who voted to reinstate Staton, could not be reached for comment at press time.

A representative of the field office of the DCI in Spencer said there was nothing to report on the continuing investigation.



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