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Bill would shield Iowa taxpayers from workplace bias payouts

DES MOINES | Future legal settlements over discriminatory employment practices by state employees or officials still would be paid by the state, but the Iowa Attorney General would be directed to recover that taxpayer money from the offender under a Senate bill proposed Wednesday.

State Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa, was joined by 19 other Democrats and Ocheyedan independent Sen. David Johnson in filling legislation in the wake of a $1.75 million sexual harassment settlement last year with a former Senate GOP staffer.

“Taxpayers got sucker-punched into having to pay for this,” Bowman said after introducing legislation its sponsors said would ensure that an offending state employee — not taxpayers — would be financially responsible for illegal workplace behavior.

Workplace rules became an issue at the Statehouse after the payment was made last year to settle a lawsuit brought by Kirsten Anderson, a former Senate Republican caucus staff communications director. She asserted she was fired in 2013 hours after complaining of sexual harassment on the job.

A former Senate president was enlisted to make recommendations on creating and maintaining a respectful and professional workplace at the Statehouse going forward, but Bowman said more is needed.

“What took place was just basically wrong,” he said. “Iowans are disgusted by the harassment, discrimination and retaliation against Kirsten Anderson and other legislative staff by some Republican senators and staff members. ... Especially in a tight budget year, this money should be put towards our kids’ education, job training programs or mental health care.”

Senate President Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said he had not seen the bill’s language so he wanted to reserve comment until he had read it.

“I know that people have suggested that and I certainly would be willing to look at that,” Whitver told reporters. “We’re going through the whole review process and, if that’s a policy we want to have going forward as a state, we should have that conversation.”

Under current law, Bowman said, Iowa taxpayers must pay for such awards, and there’s no recourse for state officials to recoup that money from offending state employees. The proposed legislation would allow the plaintiff to receive an award from the state, but would require the Iowa Attorney General to recover the amount of the award from the offender.

The legislation applies to state employment cases, which includes hostile work environment cases involving sexual harassment, race, religion, age or disability, he said.

“This proposed legislation is part of the national conversation about preventing sexual harassment in the workplace,” Bowman said. “We must send a message to legislators and other state employees who harass their co-workers or subordinates that their conduct will not be tolerated and that they will be held responsible for their illegal behavior.”

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Blue Zones out in Mason City, new community health program in (with photos)

MASON CITY | Blue Zones, the healthy community initiative that began in Mason City in 2012, has run its course and is no longer the signature health program in the city.

But a new program has emerged with the same focus and the same goals, according to Angie Determan, its program coordinator.

Determan, who has shepherded the Blue Zones program from the time Mason City went through several hurdles just to qualify for it, said Wednesday, "HEALTHY-Mason City is the new name. It is not the same as Blue Zones but is a similar model. It is the 'Healthy Hometown Model' sponsored by Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield."

File photo 

From the left, Don Muessigmann, Lorris Long and Mark Merches lead a group of about 20 people from Mason City's Central Park during a Blue Zones walking program in 2014.

The Blue Zones program was a five-year plan. Determan said the change was made to go from Blue Zones to the Healthy Hometown model because the same goals could be achieved at less cost. Wellmark Blue Cross Blue Shield is still the overall sponsor.

The Blue Zones concept was endorsed by then-Gov. Terry Branstad who wanted to make Iowa the healthiest state in the country. It has numerous programs that involve businesses, schools, governments, social agencies and individuals all with the goal of creating more healthy environments.

In May 2012, Mason City was named one of the initial Blue Zones Project demonstration communities in Iowa, receiving assistance from experts to develop and implement a blueprint for making permanent environmental, social and policy changes for healthier behaviors. The city achieved Blue Zones Community Certification in May 2014.

Its programs have included worksite health initiatives, walking, biking, gardening programs and other related activities.

As of 2016, there were 15 Blue Zone cities in Iowa, including Mason City. They were in Sioux City, Spencer, Spirit Lake, Woodbine, Harlan, Algona, Waterloo, Cedar Valley, Marion, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Muscatine, Oskaloosa and Fairfield. 

Arian Schuessler / ARIAN SCHUESSLER, The Globe Gazette 

Jefferson Elementary Principal Mike Penca wears a muscle suit while doing calisthenics with his students before a Blue Zone presentation in April 2014. 

The initiative has not been without controversy. Not long after it started, its recommendations for eliminating birthday treats from schools drew many critics.

But Determan said its successes are the long-term benefits of residents learning to live healthier lives.

After certification in 2014, City Councilman John Lee said, "Blue Zones could result in the community as a whole saving thousands of dollars in health care costs in which case it will more than pay for itself."

But through it all, there has been no cost to the city. Private donations have covered all costs, including Determan's pay as an independent contractor at more than $50,000 a year.

“While we have made great strides, we know there is still much work to do,” Determan said. "In the new program, we know we can successfully continue our journey of making our community a healthier and happier place to live, work and play.”

CHRIS ZOELLER, The Globe Gazette  

Diners wait for their food in the dining area at The Hungry Mind in this 2016 photo. The Mason City restaurant was designated as a Blue Zones restaurant for offering at least three healthy main dishes on the menu.

Kelly Hansen, POET general manager and a member of the leadership team of HEALTHY-Mason City said, “It is amazing when you begin to add up all the successes we have had over the last five years.

"We knew when we began our work that sustainability wasn’t something that you end on a date circled on a calendar. It is a culture shift that takes dedication and intent from the community to make change.”

Determan said in the new program, HEALTHY-Mason City will continue to build on its strong foundation established through Blue Zones that have included projects such as:

• Creating and sustaining two community gardens.

• Building a school greenhouse and integrating it into the school curriculum.

• Implementing healthy food options at youth concession stands.     

• Creating and implementing the Bicycle/Pedestrian Master Plan.

• Establishing a bike share program that will be implemented next year.

• Promoting walking school bus routes.

• Involving 44 worksites in health initiatives.

Interim City Administrator Kevin Jacobson said HEALTHY-Mason City will have the same office space in City Hall as Blue Zones occupied.

Tradehome Shoes closing store in Mason City mall

MASON CITY | Tradehome Shoes' last day of business at Southbridge Mall will be Saturday.

Tradehome, currently housed in the northern wing of the mall, had seen a decline in sales in recent years, according to store manager Quincy Radloff.

Radloff said he received a call from the company's corporate headquarters in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, that he would have to close later this month.

Tradehome operates 115 stores in more than a dozen states nationwide, according to Radloff. Its Mason City location has been open 33 years and is one of the original Southbridge Mall stores. 

Radloff, who began managing the Mason City location in the beginning of last year, declined to state how much sales had dipped since he started.

CHRIS ZOELLER, The Globe Gazette 

The Tradehome Shoes store at Southbridge Mall will shutter its doors on Saturday.

When pressed further on the subject, he stated: "It was higher than five percent, I can tell you that."

Most of the Tradehome Shoe Stores are concentrated in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, according to Radloff. He said he will be returning to his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, and will hopefully be working in a Tradehome location there.

Radloff, who was trained by the company in Madison, said his store closing isn't a sign more locations will close.

"We're growing as a company," he said.

Tradehome is the first mall merchant to announce its exit in 2018. Last year, two stores and one restaurant announced plans to close.

In December, Subway shut down after 24 years at the mall. It will be replaced by The Sub Marine Soups and Sandwiches, which Mr. Taco and Mr. Churro owner Luis Garcia plans to open soon.

Citing declining sales due to e-commerce, Book World announced in November it was shutting down its entire 45-store chain, including its Southbridge Mall store.

After filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March, Vanity announced it was closing all of its 137 women's clothing stores in 27 states, including its store in downtown Mason City. 

Storefronts for Book World and Vanity remain vacant.