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'It was truly a miracle': Mason City woman reflects on a year since leaving jail

MASON CITY | Mandy Martinson had already spent more than 12 years of her life in prison when she found out she was granted clemency.

She had missed out on many holidays, birthdays and other gatherings with family and friends — but she still felt fortunate she was leaving prison before her full 15-year-sentence was up. 

"There are a lot of people still in prison that are just waiting for their miracle to come," Martinson said at her father's house in Mason City Friday. "Because for me ... to get clemency, it was truly a miracle."

Martinson was convicted in 2005 of conspiracy to distribute meth, possession with intent to distribute meth and and possession of a firearm during a drug-trafficking crime. It resulted in a 15-year prison sentence, a mandatory minimum — until former president Barack Obama granted her clemency 12 years and three months after it started.

Supporters of Martinson said she was living with her boyfriend, who was dealing drugs and making the big decisions. Martinson said she simply was depressed and started using drugs to cope during a bad point in her life.

U.S. District Court Judge James Gritzner sentenced her to that minimum, but didn't feel it was fair. A year after Martinson left jail, his opinion is still the same.

"My mind has never changed on that," Gritzner said by phone Thursday. "It was a very difficult situation that … under the circumstances, was very harsh. She was clearly a candidate for clemency from the president."

He added the last contact he had with her was about a year ago, when Martinson wrote a thank you letter to him. Martinson said Gritzner's comments during her sentencing helped her through her time in jail. 

"Whenever the time got hard, I was just (thinking), even my judge was like, 'Man, I'm on your side,'" she said. "And it made me feel really good."

After Martinson left jail, she started working at both a fast food restaurant and for a local attorney. She also began the process of getting her dental hygiene license back.

It was a long process, she said, because many people she contacted had never dealt with a convicted felon trying to reacquire such a license.

But Martinson was persistent. And because of her efforts, she got that license back on July 21, and now works as a dental hygienist in town. 

She's thankful for all the people who employed her since she left prison, and the opportunities she's been presented despite her past.

Perhaps more importantly, she's grateful that she is able to spend time with family and friends. She rents out her own house, but lives with her dad in northeast Mason City.

"The best part about being out is reconnecting with the family," Martinson said. "I have a really supportive family and we're really close."

As Martinson reflected on what happened more than a decade ago, she urged people to understand that she did make a mistake. But after spending just over 12 years in prison, she's also seen how the system can damage people who were perhaps punished too harshly.

She commended Families Against Mandatory Minimums and Sen. Chuck Grassley for their work on changing the current system of mandatory minimum sentencing. That system puts judges like Gritzner in a tough position, she added. 

"I don't think a man who has worked so hard to get his position should be bound to make the decisions he's been trusted to make," Martinson said. "He's in that position because he's worked for it, and they take away his power with these mandatory sentences."

Despite her time in jail, Martinson does not believe her story is unique. She urged people to not harshly judge prisoners until learning the whole story.

"Not every person you see that's incarcerated is necessarily a bad person or trying to destroy the community," she said. "Just maybe, somebody was in a really rough place, and it could be your sister, or maybe it could be your cousin ... have an open mind."

Main Street Mason City program surviving despite heavy turnover

MASON CITY | Main Street Mason City has been a driving force for many downtown activities during the past 13 years.

Friday Night Live, Home for the Holidays, the Great River City Festival, RAGBRAI (in 2014), farmers' markets and many similar activities have owed their success, in large part, to the guiding light of Main Street Mason City. 

But in recent years, the program has had trouble keeping the light on in its own office.

With the resignation of Colleen Devine in October, it is looking for its sixth director in the past eight years.

The program is an offshoot of Main Street Iowa in which the state provides resources to help cities rejuvenate their downtown areas, providing training, seminars, counseling via phone and email, as well as on-site visits.

Cities have to qualify to be accepted as Main Street cities. Mason City has been in the program since 2004.

The state organization requires city participation. Mason City allocates $30,000 a year to the local Main Street program, according to Austin Pehl, president of the board.

Pehl, who has been a board member for three years, acknowledges the frequent turnover of executive directors puts a lot of responsibility on the volunteer board.

He said Main Street Mason City has a strong foundation that helps create stability from one director to another.

Pehl acknowledged that the pay-benefit factor, lower in nonprofits than in other lines of work, does not lend itself to long-term career possibilities. "But we are optimistic about creating new events, taking in more revenue and increasing pay possibilities," he said. 

The most recent roll call of Mason City executive directors includes Hilleri Jennings from 2010-2011; Marty Walsh, 2011-2013; Jodee O'Brien, 2013-2015, Tanner O'Brien 2015-2016 and Devine, 2016-2017.

Michael Wagler, state coordinator of Main Street Iowa, said, "Many nonprofits throughout the state and country experience challenges in maintaining staff. The average tenure of a Main Street executive director nationally is about two years. In Iowa, it is closer to three years."

The Mason City directors have been basically one-person operations who report to a local board and have access to the state resources.

Past directors said they often found themselves zeroing in on one project. "I was brought in to resurrect Friday Night Live," said Devine. "And we did that. Attendance more than doubled."

But the overall job is challenging for a one-person operation, she said. "It's a job where you look out the window everyday and see all that needs to be done."

She said she left because it was "time to move on."

O'Brien, who headed Main Street Mason City for two years, now heads another nonprofit, the United Way of North Central Iowa.

During her tenure, in 2013-2014, RAGBRAI had an overnight stay in Mason City. O'Brien and Main Street Mason City oversaw all the arrangements, from housing to entertainment.

She said many factors make the director's job challenging. "The biggest thing is fundraising," she said. "You want to do great things and offer them free but it takes money to do that. You're fundraising all the time. You have to.

"Working for a non-profit is not a life-or-death thing," said O'Brien. "You are a one-person staff and you work with your board. It doesn't pay much and there are no (fringe) benefits.

"But it is a good stepping stone for people," she said. "The directors don't last because, with the experience they gain and the people they meet, they are going to get other opportunities."

Marty Walsh, executive director from 2011-2013, said, "The most difficult thing is it's an organization where you have to wear a lot of hats. You have to be a fundraiser, a grant writer, an event planner, a budget coordinator."

When Walsh took over, the city was in the midst of the downtown Streetscape project and much of the downtown he was trying to promote was torn up.

He said at the time a lot of important work was being done that wasn't visibly important.

For instance, he said, "It's hard to notice the difference between a 100-year-old sewer line and a two-year-old sewer line — but there's a big difference."

Pehl said the board is searching for a new director and hopes to have an announcement soon.   

Looking to help those in need through the Christmas Cheer Fund?

This year’s goal for the Christmas Cheer Fund is $125,000, and so far, North Iowans have generously donated $16,033

But it's still $108,967 shy of its goal to help those in need.

The Cheer Fund was established by Globe Gazette Publisher Lee Loomis in 1927 so every child could have a present on Christmas morning. In the years since it has come to mean a little help at Christmastime to people of all ages.

Since the Christmas Cheer Fund began in 1927, $3,088,122 has been raised.

Donations may be dropped off or mailed to the Globe Gazette office, 300 N. Washington Ave., Mason City, IA 50402-0271.

Any remaining funds not distributed for the holidays will be given to local nonprofits. The Christmas Cheer Fund balance will return to $100 in January to maintain the checking account.

Those in need can apply for help from the Cheer Fund at the Globe Gazette between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. weekdays. Applicants must use the 2017 request form. Applications will close at noon Dec. 21.