Courier Year in Review: Part 3

Dec. 31—As the year 2022 comes to a close, here's a look back on a year of news that appeared in the pages of the Ottumwa Courier. These headlines were curated by Courier staff, and come from reporting by the Courier and our news partners. Part 3 covers July, August and September of 2022.


Former city clerk gets prison time

A former city clerk was sentenced to prison after pleading guilty to allegations that she stole more than $56,000 from a small Iowa town she worked for. She has appealed.

Judge Dustria Relph sentenced 55-year-old Debra Lynn Eccleston to five years of prison, and another 10 years of suspended prison, on June 21. Eccleston has filed a notice of appeal and remains out on bond.

The sentence comes after she pled guilty to charges of first-degree theft, a class C felony, and forgery, a class D felony.

A 173-page report released late last year from the Iowa State Auditor's Office detailed $56,549.07 in improper disbursements, with another $2,172.72 in disbursements not supported by documentation.

The report, resulting from a special investigation into Promise City's finances, quickly led to prosecutors filing charges against Eccleston, who oversaw the town's books as a city clerk. The investigation was requested by city officials.

The auditor's report states improper disbursements included $13,211.59 of unauthorized payroll amounts to Eccleston and another city employee, and another $11,761.99 of unauthorized reimbursements to Eccleston.

There were also $17,067.69 in Walmart purchases by Eccleston considered personal, and $9,665.19 to Alliant Energy for Eccleston's personal accounts.

Some of the disbursements appeared to benefit a business run by Eccleston's partner called Look, Buy & Enjoy, which does business as The Hungry Cow at the Book Barn in Centerville.

In addition to the five-year prison sentence, and 10-year suspended prison sentence, Eccleston was also ordered to pay $86,512.65 in restitution to the City of Promise City. That amount includes the improper disbursements, but also nearly $30,000 for the cost of the special investigation by the auditor's office, which was charged to the city.

First buildings come down in IHCC renovation

It finally hit Matt Thompson on Monday when the first building came down.

"I think that really made it real for everybody that this was happening," the Indian Hills Community College president said. "Once the buildings go down, they're not coming back up until you build what we've talked about."

Indeed, the demolition of structures has begun on the Centerville campus of the college, with eight buildings scheduled to be razed over the course of this month. Those buildings, in operation since the early 1970s, will give way to a new 66,000-square foot Centerville Educational Building, as well as some new green space and sidewalks.

In the background, however, is another big piece of the project the college sold to voters overwhelmingly last November. The college is knee-deep in turning classrooms in its 19 high schools in the region into virtual classrooms, set to be up and running when the 2022-23 school year starts.

Iowa Supreme Court takes vehicles case

The Iowa Supreme Court will hear a case involving Wapello County and the removal of 16 vehicles from a property in 2019.

In April, the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled in favor of landowners Rita McNeal and Cliff McNeal by reversing a January 2021 district court judge who ruled the county had the authority to remove the vehicles.

The county requested further review by the Iowa Supreme Court, a request that was granted Friday.

The decision by the Iowa Court of Appeals revived a lawsuit the landowners filed against the county, arguing they had no authority to remove vehicles from their property in 2019.

The McNeals operate an auto repair shop in Ottumwa, but the land in question was zoned single-family residential. The county had told the McNeals as far as back 2002 that the property could not be used as a junk or salvage yard, according to court documents. In 2019, the county had acted on concerns over the condition of the McNeal property and the sides ultimately entered into a settlement agreement in April that year.

In reversing the district court decision, the appeals court found the term "derelict vehicle" is not defined in the settlement agreement, and neither is a definition contained in the county ordinance or Iowa law used to justify the county's action.

During oral arguments before the Iowa Court of Appeals, attorneys for Wapello County asserted that the definition of derelict is at the county's decision, arguing the purpose of the agreement was to clean the property to the satisfaction of the county.

"Assigning that level of unchecked authority to the county is inconsistent with the norms of contract interpretation," Iowa Court of Appeals Judge Mary Tabor wrote. She pointed to a decision from the case Power Eng. & Mfg. v. Krug Intern., in which the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that courts generally do not interpret a contract "in a manner that would put one part at the mercy of another."

The determination of derelict vehicles should have been determined between the parties, or through legal proceedings, Tabor wrote. Thus, awarding summary judgment to the county and dismissing the case was improper, the appeals court ruled.

Fairfield teens' trials moved out of Fairfield

The trial of Jeremy Everett Goodale, one of two Fairfield teens charged with the murder of a Spanish teacher, will not take place in Fairfield.

Judge Shawn Showers granted the request by Goodale's attorneys to move the trial outside of Fairfield. The trial was also delayed. A similar motion had already been granted for Goodale's co-defendant, Willard Chaiden Noble Miller.

The two teens are charged with the death of 66-year-old Nohema Graber, a Fairfield High School Spanish teacher found dead at a city park she frequently took walks last November. Investigators accuse the teens of stalking Graber, hitting her with a baseball bat, and then attempting to hide her body under railroad ties, a wheelbarrow and a tarp.

The teens, both charged as adults and being tried separately, face charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. If convicted, they face life in prison but would be eligible for parole because they are juveniles.

Attorneys for Goodale requested the change of venue in the case citing extensive pre-trial publicity by local, state and national media outlets. Miller's trial was moved to Council Bluffs, but the location of Goodale's will be determined at a later date.

His attorneys separately requested that an Aug. 1 pretrial conference and Aug. 23 jury trial also be continued, a request the judge granted. In their motion to continue, attorneys said the criminal discovery process is still ongoing and depositions likely won't be completed before the trial date.

Attorneys have until July 25 to work out new pretrial and trial dates and submit a proposed order to the court.

The next hearing related to the cases is currently scheduled for Sept. 1 at 9 a.m., when Miller's attorneys will challenge evidence they say was obtained illegally.

Council tables franchise fees, adopts animal ordinance

Controversial topics didn't shy from the council agenda.

A proposal to replace the 1-cent local option sales tax with a 3% franchise fee on electric and natural gas bills inside Ottumwa city limits again generated discussion. Ultimately, the council decided Tuesday night wasn't the right time.

In a presentation to the council, City Administrator Phil Rath argued that it was the right time for the city to pursue this ordinance. He gave the history of recent decline in the city's property tax rate as one reason. While the fee would be expected to raise the average Ottumwa utility bill by about $4.30 per month, Rath argued the proposed property tax levy decrease would either offset or lessen the impact of the fees in most cases.

The fee is being pursued as the city has cut 26 jobs over the last decade, and as property valuations are increasing slower than officials had hoped. While the city's total tax rate has lowered the last two years, it is still one of the state's highest.

Rath has presented franchise fees as the best option to raise the city's revenues so it can continue to offer, and perhaps improve, the services it provides today.

"There simply isn't enough revenue to pay for all those services," Rath said. The city has undertaken some budget strategies like deferring capital improvements or taking on debt to pay for items it once used the general fund to pay for, but those strategies only work for so long and can cause bigger issues down the road.

The council also made the final passage of the city's new animal ordinance.

The ordinance, which makes multiple changes to the city's animals code, has garnered considerable attention mostly due to requested changes to the city's long-standing pit bull ban. The ban remained in place in the modified ordinance.

Councilperson Cara Galloway said she hopes the conversation doesn't stop and the city will undertake efforts through social media to promote the many other changes contained in the ordinance.

"I hope that after tonight the conversation doesn't stop," the first-term council member said. "I hope we continue to have conversations about this."

Pope said the ordinance has "wiggle room" to grow. The revised ordinance text will be available on the city's website in full in the near future. While the third and final vote was taken, the ordinance won't be in effect until it is published in the city's official newspaper, The Ottumwa Courier.

The third and final vote was 4-1, with Galloway voting no.

Sister Irene Munoz retires

After a 23-year career serving at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Ottumwa, Sister Irene Munoz retired from the church July 30 and moved to Davenport. Munoz spent 65 years in service overall, and was instrumental in improving human rights for minority populations in the community. Because of her legacy, Munoz had a segment of Church Street named in her honor.


Supervisors approve $500,000 for Pioneer campground project

The Wapello County Board of Supervisors approved spending $500,000 as a contribution to assist in the funding for a massive campground project at the Pioneer Ridge Nature Area.

The total cost of the project is just over $1.2 million, and the county's allotment comes from the American Rescue Plan Act. However, conservation director Richard Tebbs said other grant opportunities also could be available.

The project will be fairly immense, and revenue is expected to pick up when it is completed. Some of the highlights to the project:

— Increasing the number of campground sites from nine to approximately 25.

— Building a four-stall shower house in a central location. The current shower house is near the red hay barn and creates conflicts for big events, Tebbs said.

— New septic systems and upgrading of electrical boxes

— A new playground, dump station and the ability to take online reservations.

"There's going to be a lot of upgrades that people are used to with modern parks," he said. "There will be more pull-through campsites, which people like, instead of just back-in sites.

"It'll just draw more people, and with the online reservations, if people are traveling through the county and need to stop for three nights, they can go online and make a reservation."

Amtrak breaks ground for Ottumwa station project

A facelift is coming to Ottumwa's Amtrak station.

Officials grabbed the golden shovels and tossed some dirt Aug. 26, marking the start of a two-year, $13.8 million project that will drastically improve the Amtrak Station in Ottumwa.

The project's design will feature historical restorations, but also new improvements to accessibility and appearances at the Amtrak passenger train's stop in Ottumwa.

"We think this construction project indicates a bright future for passenger rail," said Derrick James, director of government affairs at Amtrak.

Improvements will come both inside and outside of the Amtrak station.

The project will include two new 1,200-foot-long boarding platforms that will be raised for easier boarding access, James said. The existing canopy will be removed and restored to "almost their original appearance," officials said. The historic light fixtures will be restored and upgraded with energy-efficient LED lighting.

Other exterior improvements will include new guardrails, a mobile lift enclosure and increased accessibility for the disabled.

The station's interior will see facelifts throughout, including restrooms compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and an improved ticket counter. An ADA-compliant path will be made to the existing parking areas and city streets from the station, and the station's entrance will receive upgraded power-operated doors.

"I'm really excited to be here to sort of kick off this great project that we at Amtrak have been pushing for years ... to make the front door of Ottumwa worthy of the quality that we think is evidence here in your community," James said.

The last major update to the station was completed in 1951 by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad — known today as BNSF Railway. The Ottumwa depot originally dates back to the 1880s.

Since 2008 the station has been listed by the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the station welcomes Amtrak's California Zephyr, which connects Chicago and San Francisco.

McFarland calls it a career

Barber Rick McFarland, who cut hair in Ottumwa for 50 years, retired from the profession Aug. 27. McFarland started cutting hair in 1972, and his first customer, Al Dolan, who was McFarland's model in front of the Iowa Board of Barbering, was also his final customer. McFarland, who owned Hair's the Place on West Williams Street, opened the store in 1979.

Hedrick man faces 20 felony sex charges

Two state law enforcement agencies arrested a Hedrick man Aug. 27, which they said came after a four-year sexual abuse investigation that has resulted in 20 felony charges.

Matthew Robert Reynolds, 31, of Hedrick, was charged with five counts of third-degree sexual abuse in Jefferson County, as well as 14 counts of third-degree sexual abuse and one count of second-degree sexual abuse in Keokuk County.

If convicted, Reynolds faces up to 215 years in prison — 10 years for each third-degree conviction and 25 years for each second-degree conviction.

Investigators say at least three victims — one a two-year-old child — reported being sodomized by a set of deer antlers, which were confiscated as part of the investigation and were found to contain DNA. According to court filings, victims reported to investigators that Reynolds also verbally threatened then and forced sex acts on them. Investigators say the offenses took place from 2012 through 2020.


Cardinal pauses open enrollment into district

Citing a new state law regarding open enrollment any time during the school year, and its own explosion in enrollment over the last decade, the Cardinal Community School District Board of Directors voted to pause open enrollment into the district.

Students who are already open-enrolled and are currently attending Cardinal will not be affected. Iowa's previous law allowed families to make a request for open enrollment by March 1.

"Cardinal enrollment continues to grow exponentially, and we simply need time to put a plan in place to allow students to open enroll throughout the school year," Cardinal superintendent Joel Pedersen said in a press release.

The school district plans to accept open-enrollment applications starting Jan. 1, 2023 for the 2023-2024 school year. The district anticipates capping some grade levels and programs if demand exceeds district space and resources.

"We will communicate all guidelines and options within the next few months," Pedersen said. "We encourage families not to hesitate if they are interested in open-enrollment opportunities at Cardinal once the open enrollment window opens."

From 1992 to 2010, Cardinal experienced negative open enrollment numbers and declining overall enrollment. That changed in 2010, and now the district has seen an increase of 54.9% since then — the sixth-largest increase in the state.

City approves gas, electric franchise fees

The City of Ottumwa approved 3% franchise fees for gas and electric utilities inside city limits during the city council's Sept. 21 meeting. Franchise fees, which are used to supplement revenue from the general fund, had been tabled since July because council members wanted more information on how they would be implemented. The city had already approved a revenue purpose statement that gave broad examples for what the fees would be used for.

Report: Centerville Fire Department morale at 'all-time low'

For more than three weeks, the Centerville fire chief has been on paid administrative leave. The leave comes after a third-party report commissioned by the city outlined morale and leadership concerns within the department.

City officials aren't saying why they placed Centerville Fire Chief Mike Bogle on paid administrative leave on Aug. 30. Bogle is being paid at a rate of $26.01 per hour.

Centerville City Administrator Jason Fraser did not respond to questions about how long Bogle is expected to be on paid leave or whether he is expected to return to his position. Reached by text Friday, Bogle did not offer a comment for this story.

While it's not clear if related, Bogle was placed on leave after a review was conducted on the Centerville Fire Rescue Department this summer. The report from that review is dated Aug. 29, the day before Bogle was placed on administrative leave. The outside review began in June and was conducted by consultants Matt Mardesen and Ray Reynolds.

The two — who have experience in public safety and administration — were also hired this week to conduct a review on the Centerville Police Department that Fraser said will be similar in scope.

To conduct their review, the consultants held several one-on-one interviews, distributed an anonymous survey and held a meeting with the fire department's members. A report was then drafted to summarize their review and offer recommendations to city leadership to address the concerns.