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'A financial mess.' Winnebago County Board nixes audit, focuses on tightening budget

FOREST CITY | Elected officials requested an apology from the Winnebago County Board of Supervisors for comments made on Oct. 24 in its public meeting.

The request was made by County Treasurer Julie Swenson and County Recorder Kris Colby on Tuesday, Oct. 31, during the open forum segment near the end of the supervisors’ weekly meeting.

“I feel offended by the comments,” Swenson said.

The comments, which were reported in articles that appeared in the Oct. 29 Globe Gazette and the Nov. 1 Forest City Summit, were made in a discussion addressing the public health department’s — and the county’s — financial woes.

During the discussion, Supervisor Mike Stensrud, who voiced frustration with the county’s financial situation multiple times said, “If we’re in the shape we’re in, it’s time to clean house in 2018 and 2020, and I’m including myself in 2020.”

Those are election years for Swenson, Colby and other elected county officials.

“That’s hitting a lot of officials,” Swenson said. “I believe we all do our part in trying to make the county work well.”

At the Oct. 24 meeting, Stensrud also called for a “full-blown audit” to be conducted on Winnebago County, which was discussed prior to the open forum on Tuesday.

“I think those comments just make us look like we’re not doing our job,” Colby said.

Stensrud said those comments weren’t meant for the offices of Swenson and Colby before expressing further frustration with the county’s financial situation and walking out of the meeting before adjournment.

“I’m very disturbed, very, very disturbed with where we’re sitting at right now in Winnebago County, and I’m part of it. I have to admit I’m part of it,” he said. “I think everybody needs to go home and look into the mirror.”

Prior to leaving, Stensrud had apologized for his “tirade” multiple times to his fellow supervisors throughout the meeting.

Swenson said her office also received phone calls regarding comments made by Supervisor Bill Jensvold, who is also board chairman, about increasing taxes to resolve the county’s financial woes and maintaining public health services.

Jensvold, who couldn’t recall the comments made at the last meeting but apologized for his involvement in the discussion, said the article created “the wrong perception of the county.”

“There’s no wrongdoing here,” he said. “We’ve got two things that have hit us, and that’s the public safety center and the upkeep on this building that has just drained every extra penny that there was.”

That hasn't stopped questions among board members.

“When we discussed our budget back in January and approved it in March, we had the money that we approved our budget for, so I’d like to know why we’re in the financial mess we’re in,” he said.

Elizabeth Thyer, with Gardiner Thomsen, the county’s annual auditing firm, said one of the reasons the county is in the situation it is, is the “amount of budget amendments that have been approved in the last few years” for renovations to the courthouse, which is nearly $300,000 over its bid at $957,443 with change orders, and the public safety center.

“The revenues are not increasing to cover the expenditures that are going out,” she said, noting the county could’ve bonded for the courthouse project instead of paying for it through the general basic fund.

Other options include shift expenditures — as code allows — to different funds as well as applying for grant funding for further courthouse renovations because it is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“There’s options,” Thyer said. “Everybody kind of needs to tighten their belts with their budgets as much as possible.”

The supervisors agreed that paying for an independent audit would be spending money the county doesn’t have to find out what it already knows. They didn’t, however, discuss the funding shortfall in the public health department that brought light to the county-wide financial issue last month.

“We need to sit down and decide what we’re going to do moving forward,” said Karla Weiss, Winnebago County auditor. “The past is the past. and we just need to be adults and move forward, and we got to fix it.”

And Jensvold said an audit isn’t going to resolve the issue.

“A lot of hard work is going to fix it,” Weiss said.


The Canadian Pacific Holiday Train rolls through Mason City in 2015.

Holiday on wheels: Holiday Train to roll into North Iowa (with 2015 photos)

MASON CITY | The Canadian Pacific Holiday Train looks to get North Iowa in the holiday spirit.

The Holiday Train will chug into Mason City on Dec. 6, rocking for the season and raising money, food and awareness for food banks and hunger issues.

Photos: Canadian Pacific Holiday Train 2015

CP will kick off the Holiday Train Nov. 27 and 28 with two trains beginning in Montreal, traveling through the U.S. and Canada, bringing holiday cheer to 182 communities along CP's network.

The train is scheduled to arrive in Mason City at 7:45 p.m. at the CP railroad yard, 904 S. Pennsylvania Ave. The event runs from 8-8:30 p.m. with entertainment from Canadian artists Terri Clark, Dallas Smith and Kelly Prescott.

Photos: Canadian Pacific Holiday Train 2015

The Holiday Train engines, GP20C 2200 series originally built in 1957, were rebuilt in 2013 to pull the trains. Each locomotive has 2000 horsepower, is 56.02 feet in length and weighs 275,000 pounds.

The Holiday Train will partner with Hawkeye Harvest Food Bank in Mason City. The events are free and attendees are encouraged to bring non-perishable items or cash donations for the food drive. All donations will stay with the food bank.

Since 1999, CP has raised more than 4 million pounds of food for North American food banks through the Holiday Train program.

This is the 19th year for the CP Holiday Trains. ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​They visit approximately 150 communities throughout the Christmas season to raise food and cash donations for food banks in North America.

The train is also scheduled to stop in Charles City at 11:30 a.m. Dec. 8, at the intersection of Main Street and Grand Avenue.

People are encouraged to follow the train on social media. For more information on the CP Holiday Train visit, or find it on Facebook.

Hits from Trump, Dems put Sessions in familiar hot seat

WASHINGTON — The nation's chief law enforcement officer found himself in a familiar spot Friday: belittled by the president, pressured to investigate political opponents and sucked back into the center of the storm around the investigation into the Trump administration's campaign ties to Russia.

In President Donald Trump's Cabinet, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears to be perpetually in the hot seat, yet he has made clear he's not going anywhere. In an administration where top aides serve at the president's displeasure, the former Alabama senator has shown he is more than willing to absorb the blows.

Trump paused to hit Sessions with yet another indignity just before he left the White House for a 12-day Asia trip increasingly colored by his domestic political troubles. Asked if he would fire the attorney general if he doesn't investigate his Democratic political rivals, Trump said, "I don't know." He continued to vent his frustration with the top prosecutor.

"I'm not really involved with the Justice Department," he said. "I'd like to let it run itself. But honestly, they should be looking at Democrats. ... They should be looking at a lot of things, and a lot of people are disappointed with the Justice Department, including me."

Two White House officials quickly cautioned against reading too much into Trump's comments, reiterating that he has no plans to fire Sessions. And although the White House maintains that Trump's tweets are "official record," it says Trump has not ordered Sessions or the FBI to do anything related to Democrats.

Meanwhile, special counsel Robert Mueller estimates his prosecutors will need three weeks to present their case against ex-Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Rick Gates to a jury, according to a court filing made public Friday.

Responding to a federal judge in Washington, Mueller prosecutor Kyle Freeny wrote that the government will likely need 15 trial days to present evidence supporting a 12-count indictment unsealed earlier this week alleging violations of federal money laundering, banking and foreign lobbying laws.

Manafort, who served for five months as Trump's campaign chairman, and his former deputy Gates have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Both men were released on multimillion-dollar bonds but placed on house arrest. Manafort has asked a judge to ease the terms of his pretrial confinement, calling Mueller's case "embellished," in court papers filed this week.

Manafort's lawyer, Kevin Downing, said he expects to file pre-trial motions to suppress evidence "improperly obtained by search warrant, subpoena or otherwise" by Mueller's investigators, a court filing Friday shows. Manafort's Virginia home was raided in July by FBI agents.

On Friday, Trump issued a flurry of tweets over a three-hour span urging the Justice Department to investigate Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee over a joint fundraising agreement they signed in August 2015.

Trump's accusations follow publication by Politico of an excerpt from former acting DNC Chairwoman Donna Brazile's upcoming book. Brazile alleges she found "proof" that the 2016 Democratic primary was rigged in Clinton's favor.

"Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn't looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary & the Dems..." Trump tweeted.

The aides said the tweets were a media savvy way to deflect attention from the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying about his dealings with Russians who were offering "dirt" on Clinton.

Sessions has become a scapegoat for Trump's anger, allowing the president to avoid some of the political consequences of directly attacking the special counsel.

But the president's lashing was another blow to the attorney general, who could be called back to Congress to explain why he said earlier this year he was unaware of information exchanges between Trump's campaign and intermediaries for the Russian government.

Papadopoulos admitted he told Sessions at a meeting he had made contacts with Russians who said they could set up a meeting between Trump and President Vladimir Putin. Sessions quickly dismissed the idea and said he'd prefer no one ever speak about it, according to one person who was there, who spoke on condition of anonymity to share the private conversation.

Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are now asking Sessions to follow up.

"This is another example in an alarming pattern in which you, the nation's top law enforcement officer, apparently failed to tell the truth, under oath, about the Trump team's contacts with agents of Russia — a hostile foreign power that interfered in the 2016 election," Sen. Al Franken wrote in a letter to Sessions.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal also asked Sessions to return to the panel to clarify his comments.

A person close to Sessions said Papadopoulos' comments during the March meeting did not leave a lasting impression on the then-senator, who quickly dismissed them and moved on. The person, who was not authorized to discuss the matter and did so on condition of anonymity, said Sessions does not recall any further interactions with Papadopoulos.

Iowa GOP leader eyes caucus change favoring Trump

It’s Donald Trump’s party now.

So much so that one of Iowa’s Republican National Committee members is proposing a rule change that could freeze out any GOP challenger to the president in 2020.

Whether it’s Republican opposition to Hillary Clinton and Democrats in general or a desire to end business as usual, a pair of high-profile Iowa Republicans agreed Friday that Trump may be more popular in the GOP than the party itself.

“You look at the numbers, Donald Trump gets 80 percent to 90 percent approval ratings from Republicans,” former Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Doug Gross said during recording of Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press.” “The one thing they’re united on is being against Democrats and being for Trump. That’s kind of what unites Republicans right now.”

Gross and RNC member Steve Scheffler acknowledged that despite the president’s popularity among Republicans, some are critical of the style and substance of his 10-month administration. They in the minority, Scheffler said.

“Well, first of all, I think they were in shock when Donald Trump was elected,” said Scheffler, a leader in Iowa’s Christian conservative movement. “I’m on the road three and four nights a week and I’m on the phone six days a week talking with activists and I don’t see any concern there. The overwhelming consensus I see among activists is they’re not disgusted with Donald Trump and his administration.”

However, Gross said some Republicans are concerned with Trump’s style as well as the substance of some of his policy positions, “both of which I think are problematic for the party long-term.”

If anything, Scheffler said, Republicans are disgusted with his critics and congressional Republicans who so far have not made good on promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act, rewrite immigration policy and reform taxes.

That’s a problem, Goss warned. Unless the GOP majorities in the House and Senate deliver tax reform, they could face a voter backlash.

‘It’s everything for Republicans,” Gross said. “The one thing that you think would unite Republicans would be tax cuts and tax reform and if they can’t get together on that … they really failed the test of governance because they haven’t been able to do anything on health care, they haven’t done anything yet on infrastructure. But tax cuts ought to be the easiest thing to do.”

With the president’s overall approval rating below 30 percent and little progress on the GOP agenda, “it will be a big year for Democrats in '18 if we don’t do that,” Gross said.

Despite Trump’s popularity among Republicans, Scheffler suggested the Iowa GOP may change its rules to make it harder for someone to challenge his nomination in 2020. Now, members of the State Central Committee must be neutral in the caucuses. That rule was enacted before the 2016 caucuses when no incumbent was running.

“When you have an incumbent president, it’s a whole different ballgame,” Scheffler said. “I fully suspect that if Donald Trump runs for re-election, that we will change that policy so that we are not bound to remain neutral.”

But that would be a mistake that could affect Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status if the playing field is not level, Gross said.

“We can’t say you can’t set foot in the state of Iowa and be open for the caucuses,” he said.

Scheffler predicted the party will host a straw poll the summer before the caucuses, a tradition called off in 2015 due, largely, to a lack of interest by candidates.