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North Iowa police say recruiting minorities a challenge
Chris Zoeller, Globe Gazette 

Mason City Police Officer Steve Siemers responds to a service call on Sept. 16 in Mason City.

Law enforcement agencies in North Central Iowa lack diversity.

At least three counties’ entire forces — Cerro Gordo, Mitchell and Worth — are comprised entirely of white officers, according to data obtained by the Globe Gazette from area law enforcement agencies.

Leaders of those agencies say the disparity is attributed to factors beyond their control.

"I think it’s what the makeup of our county is," Cerro Gordo County Sheriff Kevin Pals said. "I’m not sure that we can change that ... We would hire anybody who’s qualified. I’m looking for qualifications. The people that we’ve hired out of the area, only a few of them stayed."

The county with the largest population in North Central Iowa, Cerro Gordo, with about 42,450 people, is 89.9% white, 2.1% Black, 5.1% Hispanic and 3.5% other minorities, according to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau statistics. 

The Mason City Police Department, a force of 47, employs two minorities, while the Cerro Gordo County Sheriff's Office and Clear Lake Police Department employ none. 

One of the smallest counties in North Iowa, Worth County, with about 7,489 people, is 96.9% white, 1.3% Black, 2.9% Hispanic and less than 1% other minorities. Mitchell County's population is comparable.

Winnebago County, with about 10,354 people, is 90.8% white, 1.7% Black, 5.1% Hispanic and 2.1% other minorities, 2019 U.S. Census data shows, while the Winnebago County Sheriff's Office, comprising 18, employs one minority.

The region’s demographics aren't the only potential limiting factor for these agencies. What those agencies are able to offer affects the hiring pool as well.

"I think, particularly in Iowa, it boils down to amenities. Opportunities outside of work in the community. I think sometimes that can be a challenge for us," Mason City Police Chief Jeff Brinkley said. It's cold in North Central Iowa. It snows a lot, and there aren't bustling metropolises.

That's not just a focus for local law enforcement. Other leaders in the area have also thought plenty about appealing more to people outside of their communities.

At an Iowa Business Council-led meeting in June 2019, Brinkley; Jennifer Andrade, founder and CEO of The Avance Alliance, which pitches recruitment of workers from Puerto Rico for jobs in North Iowa; Chad Schreck, president and CEO of North Iowa Corridor Economic Development Corp.; and Dave Versteeg, Mason City Schools superintendent; spoke about how to champion diversity in their respective fields. They spoke to importance of such amenities as a recruiting tool. And the benefit that informational workshops can have for recruitment.

Diversity of Iowa law enforcement

Wages matter, too.

Brinkley and Pals both mentioned that even if they wanted to reach farther out with their hiring, into communities that are more diverse, they might not be able to compete with the forces in those communities.

"When you’re hiring someone for a starting wage of $36,000, you’re not moving here from Minneapolis to come work in North Iowa," Pals said. "The wages aren’t higher like they are in the cities. And there’s nothing I can do about that."

Worth County Sheriff Dan Fank, who’s in his first term overseeing a force of nearly 30, can relate.

He said being a small county of less than 10,000 people, it’s difficult to attract new people, especially when he can’t offer them wages as high as larger counties, like Cerro Gordo and those in neighboring Minnesota.

And even if these agencies wanted a more diverse force, officials say they aren't seeing applications from minority candidates.

According to Pals, during his 20 years as sheriff, there have been very few non-white applicants.

"In the 20 years I’ve been sheriff, we’ve never had an African-American person make the civil service for hiring and we’ve had one Asian person make the list. That’s the only two that have applied."

Fank said he’s had one person of color apply for one of the last four or five vacancies at the Worth County Sheriff’s Office.

The office, he said, has tried advertising the positions farther north into bigger — and more diverse — Minnesota communities like Albert Lea, Austin and Rochester, with little or no result.

“We’re still pulling this,” he said.

U.S. law enforcement diversity

The Worth County Sheriff’s Office comprises 27 deputies and jail staff, all of whom are white.

Fank said his office is hiring for a jail position, and he’d welcome candidates who are bilingual, especially those who can speak Spanish.

“If I could go back 20 years ago, the first piece of advice I’d give myself before going into law enforcement is to become bilingual,” he said. “It’s just so important.”

Clear Lake Police Chief Pete Roth said his department will see anywhere from 20 to 30 applicants per vacancy; however, the city doesn’t track the demographics of those who submit an initial application for positions.

The Clear Lake Police Department consists of 15 officers, all of whom are white.

The department has one open police officer position due to a recent retirement and will be advertising for a part-time records clerk/administrative assistant in the near future, and Roth said he welcomes more diversity.

“The Clear Lake Police Department has continued to strive for a diverse workforce well before 2020 and we will continue to do so,” he said.

As far as whether things would change much with a more diverse staff, Pals doesn't think so.

"My experience in 42 years of law enforcement is that it doesn’t matter what color our skin is in uniform. It’s the uniform,” he said.

Fank said regardless of race, he wants to hire individuals he can trust, who have integrity and can do the job.

“You want the right fit,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing.”

Brinkley said that the recruiting challenge is something he's been working on since he became chief in Mason City. Even before the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked nationwide protests about police conduct, the MCPD was doing training on bias awareness and systems of oppression. And he said that there are signs of progress in the work.

"We’re starting to see a more diverse applicant pool,” Brinkley said. "This recruitment was better but it just depends on who is looking for jobs."

But no matter, he said that the job won't be something everyone is interested in.

"This job is not for everybody. We know that. But I think it’s making sure that they know what they’re getting into and we know what we’re getting into, as well," Brinkley said.


PHOTOS: #BlackLivesMatter protest in Mason City Sunday, May 31

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Election 2020: Why does my ballot ask about a constitutional convention?

It may be the biggest secret of the election in Iowa.

It gets little attention from voters and often is overlooked as they fill out their ballots. It’s that question on the back side of Iowa ballots that asks: “Shall there be a convention to revise the constitution, and propose amendment or amendments to same?”

The Iowa Constitution requires the question appear on the ballot once every 10 years. Iowa voters have approved ballot measures calling for a state constitutional convention three times — in 1844, 1856 and 1920. 

“It’s astounding how little people know a) about their constitution and b) why this is on the ballot,” said J.H. Snider, a former fellow at Harvard University and editor of The Iowa State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse.

Snider is a fan of the constitutional convention — or at least giving people the option of calling one.

The state constitution can be amended by a process that begins in the Legislature. In the most recent session, there were calls for amendments to restrict certain income tax changes, to establish that the constitution does not secure a right to an abortion, to limit general fund spending, to define the gubernatorial line of succession, to establish rights to keep and bear arms, and to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife, and to make the channel catfish the state fish.

Cerro Gordo County Facebook page 

With a full three weeks until Election Day, Cerro Gordo County officials had received more than 5,800 ballots from residents by Oct. 7, when this picture was taken. 

However, Snider argued, there is a need for a way the public can bypass the Legislature.

The framers “didn’t want to give so much power to the Legislature that they could control all future amendments. They saw that as a problem,” Snider said.

It might have been a problem back then, but Iowa State University political science Professor Mack Shelley isn’t sure that still applies.

“Arguably, it does have a 19th century feel to it,” said Shelley, who has been teaching American government, public policy and voting behavior at ISU since 1979.

In general, Shelley said, constitutions were written to be difficult to change. The U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times in more than 240 years, with 10 of those amendments — the Bill of Rights — coming in one fell swoop.

Iowa’s constitution has been amended 48 times in nearly 174 years. The most recent was a 2010 amendment to dedicate three-eights of a cent of the next state sales tax increase to natural resources. Shelley noted that despite approval by legislators and then by voters, no such tax has been raised.

Typically, he said, support for a constitutional convention has been driven by a volatile issue. After the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage, some people in 2010 called for a convention to put forward a constitutional prohibition.

“It was hot-button issue, but it wasn’t enough to get them over the threshold,” Shelley said. In fact, the vote wasn’t close — 67 percent of voters rejected a constitutional convention. Same-sex marriage opponents did, however, vote out three Supreme Court justices who were part of the unanimous opinion.

Opponents of constitutional conventions frequently cite the “Pandora’s box” argument. Whatever the intentions of those promoting the convention, they have little or no control over the outcome.

A convention “opens the door, in a literal sense, to anything and everything,” Shelley said.

However, Snider contends there’s a “smorgasbord of issues where the Legislature for a variety of reasons is ill-suited” to address constitutional changes.

“For them it’s a Pandora’ box,” Snider said about legislators and the political interest groups that work closely with them. “It’s risky because they’ve got control in those relationships, so they don’t want something that’s not in their control.”

The constitutional convention question has drawn little attention this year.

Neither the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board nor Ballotpedia, the online clearinghouse of political and election-related information, report any committees registered in support of or in opposition to the measure.

That could change in the future, Shelley speculated, if the U.S. Supreme Court were to strike down the Affordable Care Act or overturn the Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision.

“I think that would likely trickle down to the Iowa level and there could be a push in 2030 for something like criminalizing abortion,” he said. However, he added, “If you have to wait 10 years, it could be more effective to try to push it through Legislature.”

Either way, the question will be back on the ballot in 10 years.

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How have COVID-19 plans in Mason City shifted?

The best laid plans during a pandemic are bound to change.

In the Mason City area, in March, when officials in the educational, governmental and health fields were figuring out how to best respond to COVID-19 and how disruptive a surge could be, they looked at converting dorms at the NIACC campus to a makeshift hospital if needed. 

At the time, CG Public Health Director Brian Hanft said that the plan was just one component of what the department was developing as it continued to look at what the local surge might be. 

"We’re involved in discussions for what we need to do and how we need to plan," he said. "We’re looking at developing our plan so that when the time comes the people that are involved can help initiate as efficiently as possible."

Seven months later, the time for that particular plan still hasn't come.

"We looked at all options some time ago but the NIACC site right now is really not even a consideration for us," Hanft said on Wednesday. "We would look at other available options but we continue to work with Mercy on an as-needed basis but I think they have a good handle on response."

As MercyOne North Iowa President Rod Schlader put it, the medical center has found better methods. 

"It’s always better to keep patients in the hospital setting because there are so many aspects to keep track of and those can be problematic if you go off campus." He said that he couldn't imagine such a plan would be necessary now unless all of the beds in the state of Iowa filled.

Despite a recent uptick in cases for the hospital — Schlader said MercyOne hit a record of 30 COVID patients in the past week — the hospital has been able to accommodate and treat people on site. And with flu season arriving, MercyOne is having to adjust even further. 

On Nov. 1, the hospital is doing construction on an eight-bed unit for more patients.

"So that should help with some of that demand, too," Schlader said. 

At this point, the state as a whole has topped 1,500 COVID-19 deaths for the year and has a two-week average positive test rate of 9.3%. 

In Cerro Gordo County, there have been 23 deaths and the 14-day average is 5.1%, though there have been individual days in the month where the rate shot up to 20%. That's a change from the earliest days of the pandemic in the county when cases were low and deaths were non-existent.

"Things changed so much from the beginning that we’ve had to pivot several times and change what the plans were," Schlader acknowledged. "We’ve been successful now with treating it because we’ve changed. This evolves every day and it’s still evolving. We have to be nimble."

Hanft concurs.

Having certain things fixed is important when dealing with something as serious as this virus. But it's also important to be adaptable. To shift when necessary. 

"Our plan has always been to monitor the numbers and be able to react or adjust as needed. ... If we see numbers go up, we will communicate with schools and see what the next step will be," Hanft said. 

In a way, the contingency plan is about reacting on the fly. It's as much about response as it is preplanning, according to Hanft.

"We’ve got to work with the situation as it's presented to us and react the best way we can."

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