MASON CITY | This past week, the Globe Gazette took a closer look at the five finalists for Mason City's city administrator vacancy.
The five chosen by the city, and a search firm led by Story City Administrator Mark Jackson and Brent Hinson — a former city administrator in Garner who now works in Washington, Iowa — boast a significant amount of accomplishments at their prior jobs, ranging from downtown development projects to better management of the public's money.
They also all have more than two decades in the city management experience, and master's degrees from various universities related to their fields.
Four of the five, however, have also resigned or been fired from previous positions. The other candidate now works in Garner, where Hinson — one of the key players in helping Mason City narrow the candidates — used to be in his position.
Mason City Personnel Director Perry Buffington credited Jackson and Hinson for finding 60 possible candidates, which produced what he felt was an impressive field. He added that constant turnover is common in the city administrator profession.
"This position serves at the pleasure of elected officials," Buffington said. "Almost every city administrator across the country ... has a lot of turnover in their background because of it."
Jackson offered a similar view to Buffington, citing the fact it is unusual that he himself has been city administrator in Story City for more than two decades.
He added it's important to dig into what caused certain resignations or terminations, and evaluate everything about the candidate's past.
"A lot of it is based on what you know and what they know … some communities are very difficult to be a city manager in," Jackson said. "It’s usually just the culture of the community and the nature of the politics."
In interviews with the Globe Gazette this past week, all five finalists said they were excited about the opportunities Mason City offers and the direction the city is headed. They also explained how they would combat the challenges they face if they were selected, and why they would be the best fit for one of the largest cities in North Iowa.
In his current job as city manager in Independence, a job he has held since 2014, one of Roder's main accomplishments has been the installation of a new pool/aquatic center, built under budget by $800,000 for a total of $2.9 million.
He told the Globe Gazette he thinks Mason City has a positive culture right now, and would help see the River City Renaissance Project through if he were picked.
"I think it’s a matter of understanding the ground that needs to be covered and not trying to reinvent the wheel," Roder said about the project specifically. "The size of the project is less significant than the process that we have to go through."
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported in July 2008 that Roder — then city administrator in Northfield, Minnesota, agreed to drop a lawsuit against the city if Mayor Lee Lansing apologized for "behavior that he said fueled his decision to leave."
Rodur also resigned from his city administrator position in Norfolk, Nebraska, effective December 2010. Then mayor Sue Fuchtman later said Roder did nothing wrong and didn't deserve to be fired. No further details were given.
Rodur, in response to questions about those incidents, said the allegations against him in Northfield "were proven to be without merit." He added that what happened in Norfolk was simply a disagreement on the future of that town.
"The mayor made the comment and they wanted to go in a different direction … (she) was very forthcoming but there was nothing else given to me about it," he said about what happened in Nebraska.
In his most recent job as city manager in Dixon, Illinois — a job he held from 2016-17 — O'Donnell developed a five-year capital improvement program, which helped city council members and staff to identify projected shortfalls in revenue streams, and avoid any future shortfalls.
O'Donnell told the Globe Gazette that the Mason City job would allow him to return to his home state of Iowa, and thinks the city has the chance to be pretty progressive in the coming years.
One aspect to that is the aforementioned River City Renaissance Project.
"When it comes to the downtown project I’ve been through one in Algona on a smaller scale," O'Donnell said. "The way you really navigate through that is you need to work with the businesses to alleviate some of those fears … and keep promoting the downtown so people are interested."
In his last job, he was fired by a split council vote because he wasn't keeping department heads informed about discussions he had with council members. He also did not establish his main residence in Dixon, Sauk Valley Media reported in August 2017.
"As part of my separation agreement, I really can't say a whole lot," he said about what happened in Dixon, later adding: "I certainly could have done some things differently ... but there's a lot of personality issues in that community."
Helfenberger, who served as city administrator in St. Cloud, Florida, from 2015-17, was responsible for helping lead a downtown development, ranging from hotel restoration to a new 10-15 story mixed-use building. The developer who assisted in the project spent more than $10 million on St. Cloud's downtown area.
Helfenberger said Mason City has a lot of potential and that if he is selected, he would help make the city the best that it can be.
That includes making sure the River City Renaissance Project is completed without any further challenges, he added.
"I would work with the task force group (Mason City Says Yes) that is currently spearheading it," Helfenberger said. "And be a facilitator to make sure that the roadblocks to getting the project done are removed, and that the resources are set to accomplish it."
He resigned from St. Cloud in July 2017, after a city council member made a motion to terminate him for allegedly spending more than $100,000 without the council's consent, Spectrum 13 News reported.
Helfenberger emphasized that this mistake was made by the city finance director, who resigned the week after the news broke.
He added his decision to resign was because he and council members didn't agree on certain projects and the future of St. Cloud.
"I was hired under a different council, and they wanted to go in a certain direction, they wanted a lot of growth," Helfenberger said. "They (new council members) wanted to go in a completely different direction, (and) it was a direction I ultimately didn’t want to go in."
Pederson, who last worked as city manager in Paducah, Kentucky, from 2010-17, helped bring a $20 million, 124-room hotel to the city's downtown waterfront. It opened in July 2017.
He said he has lived in north central Iowa in the past, and thinks he is well-prepared for any challenges Mason City throws at him.
His past experience with hotel development should help with the River City Renaissance Project is he were picked, he added.
"I was fortunate to come into a time when development agreement and multiple partners involved, and I was able to get it done," Pederson said about the Paducah hotel. "I was able to make the commitment based upon the development incentives."
The Kentucky New Era reported in November 2017 that he was asked to resign from his position as city manager in Puducah. He finished there last month.
When asked about his resignation, Pederson said the city simply wanted to move in a different direction.
"I would simply that the city manager’s job is political," he said, later adding: "I want to tell people it’s not that my management style has changed, but it’s the outlook of the majority conducting body."
Lansing, who started as Garner's city administrator in 2011, said earning the same position in Mason City would be a "career enhancement."
He added that he's happy about the positive mood in Mason City, made apparent by the River City Renaissance Project vote — both ballot items passed with over 74 percent approval.
Lansing emphasized that completing the project will be a top priority if he is selected.
"The first thing is get together with the (city) council and prioritize all the things that need to be done to see that through to fruition," he said.
Lansing added he has known Hinson, Garner's former city administrator for eight or nine years, but doesn't believe it played a major role in him being a finalist.
"I’m assuming it was the candidates and what they bring to the table," he said about him and his four competitors.
When asked about serving a much larger community in Mason City, Lansing said if he were selected, he would rely on department staff to help him do his job.
"I don’t foresee difficulties," he said. "I’m making a assumption that Mason City has 'A' players as department heads … and I work very well with department heads."
All five candidates will be available to answer questions from the community in a public reception from 5-7 p.m. Feb. 16 in the Salisbury Room at the MacNider Art Museum, 303 Second St. S.E. They also will be interviewed by city officials from Feb. 16-17.
Buffington, Mason City's personnel director, said extensive background checks are still being done with all five finalists, and believes the city council should have a new city administrator officially selected at its March 6 meeting.
He added it's up to council members to do their homework and make the best decision for Mason City.
"At this point, the city council needs to have the opportunity to meet the candidates, assess their personalities and styles, to take a look at what their accomplishments are, and see how that translates into what they truly are looking for," Buffington said.
MASON CITY | A pediatric care center in Clear Lake is owed over $100,000 in Medicaid payments because of delays or denials of claims since the state's Medicaid program was privatized two years ago.
The center, part of Oakwood Care Center, is one of many throughout North Iowa that have experienced financial havoc since former Gov. Terry Branstad discontinued the state's operation of the Medicaid program and turned it over to private MCOs (managed care operations) two years ago.
It is a plan Sen. Amanda Ragan, D-Mason City, describes as "a reckless experiment."
When the program was first announced, there were four potential MCOs. When it was implemented, the number had dropped to three. Today, there are two: Amerigroup Iowa Inc. and UnitedHealthCare Plan of the River Valley, Inc.
"Our Clear Lake pediatric therapy center is owed over $100,000 with no logical reason for non-payment," said Richard Allbee, chief executive officer of ABCM Corp., which is headquartered in Hampton and owns 31 nursing homes and assisted living centers throughout the state.
Allbee said another of ABCM's facilities is owed $80,000. "We feel certain that both of these would have been paid without a problem prior to the MCOs taking over the Iowa Medicaid program," he said. ABCM's managed care provider is Amerigroup Iowa.
The state has approximately 600,000 Medicaid recipients, many of whom are in care facilities that depend on reimbursement on claims they file.
"The switch to MCOs by the state has been a huge setback for ABCM Corporation," Allbee said. "In the almost 50 years we've been in business, we have not worried about trying to meet payroll for our 3,000 employees as we have in the past two years.
"There is no logical reason, in our opinion, for their refusal to pay. We feel certain that both of these would have been paid without a problem prior to the MCOs taking over the Iowa Medicaid program," Allbee added.
Ian Stockberger, administrator of Good Shepherd Inc. in Mason City, said Good Shepherd has also been impacted by inconsistencies since the new program was implemented.
"Financially, the negotiated DHS floor rates appear to be fair for services rendered. What has been difficult in dealing with MCOs is receiving consistent payments," Stockberger said.
"It is not uncommon for us to get reimbursement where half the residents were paid out at one rate and the other half at another rate when they were both billed under the same code.
"Although it is not uncommon for healthcare billing to occur in arrears, we are still working to reconcile accounts dating back to the program launch in April of 2016," he said.
In addition, not only have there been instances of underpayments but also several examples of overpayments, "showcasing some of the inconsistencies within the system," Stockberger said.
He said the nursing home industry in Iowa has operated under a two-year moratorium in which MCO providers have been required to follow a floor rate set by the DHS to maintain stability.
In April, the second anniversary of the privatization, facilities and MCOs will engage in contract negotiations.
"The industry is fearful of the outcome of this because with so few providers, it leaves little to no negotiating power," Stockberger said.
Mercy Medical Center - North Iowa has also felt the effects of the Medicaid changeover.
A spokesman for Mercy Health Network said, "As was the care before creation of the MCOs, rates continue to be below cost. Since the launch of Iowa's Medicaid privatization plan, we have encountered a number of administrative challenges related to authorization approvals, deferred payments and inconsistent reimbursement policies."
The spokesman said the concern is the changes limit access to services, including behavioral health and chronic care management services.
"We continue to work with the state and the MCOs to help streamline processes and protect access to care for our patients," the spokesman said.
Matt Highland, public information officer for the state's Department of Human Services, said the department is working closely with MCOs to ensure prompt and appropriate payment to Medicaid providers.
"While we're hearing from providers that claims are being made more timely, and the situation is improving, there may be some older, outstanding claims that the MCOs are working to resolve," he said.
"The Department will continue to monitor this and is committed to providing strong oversight of our managed care providers."
Ragan, the state senator, held public forums two years ago because of fears she had about the impending changes. It was her belief the changes were too broad and being made too fast and that they would not provide savings to the state as Branstad had claimed.
Reflecting on the changes last week, she said, "From the start I was worried that Medicaid privatization was going to be a bad deal for Medicaid recipients, health care providers and Iowa taxpayers."
She said officials in other states had warned that privatization would lead to denials of services and delayed and incorrect payments.
"After two years, my worst fears have come true," said Ragan, "and so many people in North Iowa are paying the price."
She sponsored a Senate bill in 2016 that would have repealed Medicaid privatization but the bill did not survive. This year she is sponsoring a bill that terminates the private contracts and, in effect, seeks a new state program to serve Medicaid providers and recipients.
Another bill she is sponsoring aims at making case management and assessments free of conflicts.
"I am concerned that providers will go out of business or stop caring for Medicaid members, leaving Iowans without access to the health care they deserve," she said.
Allbee summed up ABCM's assessment of the changeover to Medicaid privatization: "There have been no positives," he said.
CLEAR LAKE | First responders were dispatched at about 1:10 p.m. Saturday to the 3500 block of North Shore Drive for a report of a plane that made an emergency landing on the lake.
The plane made an emergency landing on the ice-covered lake then taxied closer to the shoreline at the 2700 block of North Shore Drive.
Small army looking plane made an emergency planing on the ice covered Clear Lake Saturday. pic.twitter.com/eAlBeI5195— Courtney Fiorini (@CourtneyFiorini) February 10, 2018
There was little damage to the plane, tail number N49774, and there were no injuries.
According to Cerro Gordo County Sheriff's Deputy Jeff Bryant, the incident was pretty much cleared up by the time he got to the scene from Mason City.
"Whatever it was, it was taken care of," Bryant said. "The pilot fixed it and left."
No other information was available Saturday afternoon.
MASON CITY | A Charles City woman accused of sexually assaulting a child at her day care will be sentenced 10 a.m. Monday at the Cerro Gordo County Law Enforcement Complex.
Tawny Symonds, 31, is accused of using an object to sexually assault a female child under the age of 3 in December 2016, causing "blunt force trauma" to the child's genital area, police wrote in charging documents.
She was initially charged with three felonies: second-degree sexual abuse, assault with an object and child endangerment.
Through a plea agreement, Symonds will only be sentenced on the child endangerment charge. The victim's mother is scheduled to give a victim impact statement at sentencing Monday, according to a court document filed Wednesday.
When the case was previously scheduled to go to trial, Assistant Cerro Gordo County Attorney Gina Jorgensen noted in court documents prosecutors would seek enhanced sentencing as Symonds was a mandatory reporter while working as a day care provider.
On Dec. 4, Jorgensen was withdrawn from the case and replaced by Cerro Gordo County Attorney Carlyle Dalen.
A week later, Symonds submitted an Alford plea to child endangerment, a lesser charge that carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. An Alford plea is when a defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges prosecutors can likely prove the charge.
The sexual abuse and assault charges were dropped as part of a plea agreement.
In Iowa, a second-degree sexual abuse conviction carries a sentence of up to 25 years in prison, as well as sex offender registry requirements when the offense involves a child. In Iowa law, rape and sexual assault charges are called "sexual abuse."
A conviction on the assault charge carries a sentence of not to exceed 10 years in prison, with a mandatory minimum of 70 percent. This crime, officials allege, falls under the assault portion of Iowa law, not sexual abuse.
Police say Symonds victimized the child at her day care, 696 13th St. S.E. in Mason City. She also allegedly violated a Department of Human Services' safety plan by allowing someone at that day care, something she previously agreed to not do, court documents state.
The Globe Gazette previously reported Symonds asked for a closed sentencing hearing after there was an uproar on social media about the plea deal. Judge Rustin Davenport ruled against closing the hearing.
Iowa Assistant Attorney General Scott Brown told the Globe Gazette in late December that local authorities may "beef up" security for the sentencing hearing.
Anyone who causes a disturbance, makes threats or is disrespectful may be charged with contempt of court, Brown wrote in a motion opposing the closed hearing.