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Judge denies closing sentencing for former Mason City day care provider accused of sex abuse

MASON CITY | A North Iowa judge has denied closing a sentencing hearing for a Charles City woman charged with sexually abusing a child while working as a Mason City day care provider. 

Judge Rustin Davenport has ruled the sentencing hearing for Tawny Symonds, 31, will remain open, after Iowa Assistant Attorney General Scott Brown filed a motion to resist her attorneys' request to close it earlier this month.

In the motion, Brown said Symonds, her attorneys and prosecutors "may be uncomfortable or disagree with the objections" to the plea agreement, but noted people have the right to express opinions and view the court process first-hand. 

"Hopefully, once the public has all the information there will be a complete understanding of the agreement that was entered," Brown wrote. 

Neither Davenport or Steve Kloberdanz — a public defender representing Symonds and who filed the motion to close the hearing — could be reached for comment by phone Wednesday afternoon.

Davenport's decision follows a period when there was an uproar on social media about a plea deal for Symonds.

Symonds submitted a written Alford plea in Cerro Gordo County District Court to child endangerment, in exchange for the felony second-degree sexual abuse and assault charges being dropped. 

An Alford plea is when a defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges the state can likely prove the charge.

Police say Symonds victimized a child at her home-run daycare in southeastern Mason City. She was arrested in December 2016. 

Brown, the state assistant attorney general, said Wednesday he had not heard Davenport's ruling, and quickly reviewed it in an interview with the Globe Gazette. He added he was not surprised about the decision.

"It’s no more dangerous than any other court hearing," he said. "Emotions can run pretty high in anything we do."

Brown said the court may "beef up" security with the Cerro Gordo County Sheriff's Office to allow the hearing to proceed in a civil manner, if that protection is needed.

Disturbances in the courtroom, disrespectful conduct and threats towards those involved in the case can result in contempt charges, Brown's motion noted. 

Symonds' sentencing has been rescheduled for 10 a.m. Feb. 12, 2018, at the Cerro Gordo County Law Enforcement Complex.

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Program aims at getting truant Mason City kids back in school

MASON CITY | Some kids are bored. Some feel unwanted. Others feel disconnected. 

Whatever the problem, many of them think the solution is to stay out of school.

Truancy can lead to many other problems, officials say, and finding solutions provides advantages that are wide-ranging.

The Cerro Gordo County Attorney's Office has partnered with Mason City Schools to work with parents and students to find a way of getting the kids back in school.

The program began about a year ago. So far, nine students and their families have been involved.  

"Truancy is more than a school problem," said Nichole Benes, an assistant county attorney who has worked on many juvenile cases.

"Many truants are in juvenile court for other issues," she said. "For some kids, free time means trouble. Delinquency means truancy."

The concept of the anti-truancy program is to find a way to get students, parents and school officials to work together to get the students back in school, said Jadie Meyer, director of special education and student services.

"The intent is to be proactive and have early communication with the family. We want to get all players together so we can all play a part," Meyer said.

She said while nine students and their families have been involved in the new program, that does not represent the extent of the truancy problem. "Many schools handle truancy at their own level," she said.

Meyer said often the key is to determine what kind of support the student needs and find ways to provide it.

"It might be more parental support, school support, mental health support. It could be a lot of things," she said.

Though the program is still in its infancy, Meyer thinks its success will be evident in the number of truants who turn their lives around and become productive citizens. "Success goes well beyond the school doors," she said.

Benes and Meyer said a key component in the program was to have a mediator — someone who could listen to the students, the parents and school officials, and lead them to a plan of action.

Retired Juvenile Court Judge Gerald Magee was the ideal person to fill that role, Benes said, and he accepted. 

Magee, 74, became a juvenile court judge in 1992 when the state started the program and stayed in that role until his retirement in 2008.  

Since that time he has presided over Family Treatment Court, Drug Court and in 2013 was elected chairman of the Iowa Child Advocacy Board, a group that provides citizen involvement in child welfare cases.

As mediator in the truancy program, Magee said, "The objectives are to find out the reason for the truancy, work out solutions and prepare a written mediation agreement that everyone can live with.

"It is a program that goes into effect when nothing else has worked," he said. "It is a last resort."

Truancy is not something new, Magee said. "Even in my earliest days as a juvenile court judge, it was a problem. It still is," he said.

Magee said there was a time when schools dealt with truant kids by expelling them. "That has changed a lot over the years," he said. "The idea is to find a way to keep them in school, not kick them out."

The protocol for the program involves meetings between the student, parents and school officials, identifying the problems and possible solutions.

The final step is coming up with a mediation agreement signed by the parent, a school representative and the mediator which specifies what the child has agreed to do, what the school has agreed to do and includes comments from the mediator.

Benes said truancy hits all age groups so the mediation steps differ, depending on the situation.

"Young kids don't attend the mediation sessions," she said. "Older kids do, because they have much more responsibility for their actions."

Magee is also working with Charles City and Nora Springs officials on a similar program. 

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Gatehouse sends Mason City $110k in bills for downtown hotel prior to vote, says invoices are 'void'

Editor's note: A previous version of this story did not indicate when the city received the invoices from Gatehouse Capital.

MASON CITY | The city has received three invoices totaling $110,000 from Gatehouse Capital without any explanation or documentation and 10 days before picking a different developer, according to Interim City Administrator Kevin Jacobson.

This is in addition to the $150,000 the city has already paid Gatehouse for pre-construction work.

The City Council on Nov. 27 voted to go with San Diego-based G8 Development — instead of Gatehouse — to construct a downtown hotel. The city had been negotiating with Gatehouse for several months. 

Gatehouse invoices

The bills, from Gatehouse Mason City LLC, are for $30,000 for pre-construction services "as provided in section 9. 1.b of the purchase, sale and development agreement," another $30,000 with the same notation, and $50,000 for "Hyatt Place Application Fee Deposit."

Jacobson, who is also the city's finance director, said the bills were sent Nov. 17, 10 days before the council vote approving G8 over Gatehouse. There was no documentation sent with the invoices and that there is no "purchase, sale and development agreement" with Gatehouse.

He has not paid the bills.

A Gatehouse spokesman said Wednesday the invoices were sent in anticipation of a signed development agreement which never took place.

"The invoices are void. Gatehouse does not expect payment," he said.

The council meets at 7 p.m. Thursday for a public hearing on a development agreement with G8. They will then vote on the measure. 



Cheer Fund $7K shy of 2017 goal to help North Iowans

MASON CITY | The Christmas Cheer Fund is still accepting donations to help North Iowans through the holiday season.

This year marks the first time since the Cheer Fund was created in 1927 that it hasn’t surpassed its goal before Christmas.

As of Tuesday, the fund was $7,157.25 short of its $125,000 goal.

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

Since the Cheer Fund began, more than $3 million has been raised to help thousands of North Iowans.

This year, more than 2,600 applications were received by the Cheer Fund from individuals and families, like a Charles City couple with three teenage children, seeking assistance.

According to the application received from the Charles City couple, they were both laid off from work. The husband, 45, due to the cold weather, and the wife, 45, because of thyroid cancer.

The woman said she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in October, and she had surgery to remove 40 lymph nodes and her thyroid. She hasn’t started chemotherapy yet but has “a lot of weakness” from the surgery.

“I would really appreciate the help if any that you could/would provide,” she wrote. “My left shoulder has been affected, and I’m not sure how long it will be before I can return to work.”

She said her husband won’t be returning to work until “spring thaw,” when concrete can be poured.

The couple has three children between 13 and 18. If granted Cheer Fund assistance, they plan on using it to purchase towels and clothes for their children.

Other Cheer Fund applicants are struggling with homelessness, family hardships, unexpected disasters and more.

Donations may still be dropped off or mailed to the Globe Gazette office, 300 N. Washington Ave., Mason City, IA 50402-0271 until the Cheer Fund goal is met.

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.