A rash of resignations in Marquette over council’s decision not to enforce zoning

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By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Marquette mayor David Schneider, councilwoman Rinda Ferguson, city manager Dean Hilgerson and city attorney Jim Garrett have all resigned following the council’s decision Jan. 19 not to enforce the city’s zoning ordinance, in allowing a property owner at the city’s Timber Ridge subdivision to live in a mobile home on the lot while he constructs a home.

The property is owned by Dave Evans, who said he plans to complete his home, which he began building over two years ago, in the fall. The city has asked Evans to remove the mobile home and began issuing municipal infractions against him several months ago, the first for placing a mobile home in an area that is not zoned for the purpose (mobile home park). The other municipal infractions were for placing the mobile home without a building permit and constructing a stair off the mobile home without a building permit. The final infraction cited Evans’ failure to place the mobile home on a permanent frost free foundation; a decision on this is still pending.

The first citation was dismissed, as was the one regarding the stairs, while Evans was ordered to pay a $500 fine for placing the mobile home without a permit. It was also ordered that Evans apply for and be awarded the proper and appropriate permits as to be allowed to complete the project and then remove the temporary structure in a timely manner.

At the council’s Jan. 19 meeting, Garrett said, if the city chose not to issue a permit or the board of adjustment a variance, members of the board, as well as Hilgerson, who is the zoning administrator, could face jail time, even though issuance of a permit would go against city and state code. Garrett said the board of adjustment has already twice denied Evans a variance; it did not even have the authority to grant one, he added, but was compelled to hold a hearing, as Evans requested it.

At that time, Garrett also advised the council that it needed to decide how to proceed, either appealing the rulings, which he felt would be reversed, or change or get rid of the city’s zoning laws.

Council members Pam Brodie-Fitzgerald, Cindy Halvorson and Eleanor Soulli voted not to appeal the rulings, citing concerns over legal costs and harming the city’s reputation. Ferguson voted against them and Schneider voiced concerns over their decision not to enforce zoning, fearing repercussions to the city down the road. John Ries was not in attendance.

A week after the council’s decision, Schneider’s fears pushed him to resign, less than one month after taking office.

“I went into this with the promise that it was my job to enforce city and state laws,” he said. “When the council voted to go against the city ordinance, state law and advice, I knew it was going to create future problems for the city.”

“It’s not an easy decision,” he continued. “I feel I could have done a good job, but I can’t go against my judgment and idea of right and wrong.”

Schneider said he felt the city should not make exceptions based on the amount of money someone is willing to spend on a project, and on fighting the city.

“You need to do what’s right for all,” he said. “You have to think things out and see the long-term ramifications. That’s the part I can’t stomach. We should have seen this through to the end.”

Ferguson, who served on the council for six years, said she resigned for the same reasons.

“Tragically, our city government has been turned upside down, and the community as a whole is secondary at best,” she told the council at a special meeting Jan. 27, reading from her letter of resignation. “Some current council members have decided the new course of the city is to not enforce the city code covering several zoning violations for one individual because he is ‘building a million-dollar home.’”

Tracy Melver, who’s on the board of adjustment, also resigned at the Jan. 27 meeting, stating, “I will not serve under a council that blatantly disregards their oath of office to uphold the ordinances of the city of Marquette and the laws of the state of Iowa.”

Another board of adjustment member, Randi Kluesner, attended the meeting and questioned why the council made the decision.

“As a member of this committee, it was a real slam in the face,” she said. “Is there any reason why we have a board of adjustment if the council can overturn our decision?”

“You guys are great,” responded Halvorson. “I respect you, but it came down to what the court order was.”

“The council was following a court order to stop what we were doing,” Brodie-Fitzgerald explained. “It was the magistrate’s determination that we take a breather and let [Evans] build.”

Hilgerson took issue with that, stating that Garrett felt the magistrate did not have the authority to make him issue Evans a permit, thus Garrett’s belief that the city would have won an appeal.

Hilgerson added that he’s contacted an attorney to file a defamation of character suit against the council for putting him in the position to issue the permit against city code and state law.

The council held another special meeting Jan. 29 to decide how to move forward in the wake of the resignations. As mayor pro tempore, Halvorson presided over the meeting.

The council decided requests for quotations (RFQs) will be put out to find a new city attorney and advertisements will be placed for two city positions: full-time city manager/city clerk and part-time deputy clerk. City clerk Sue Weipert noted she has not stepped down from her position. 

A new council member and mayor will be appointed at the city’s next regular meeting, on Tuesday, Feb. 16. If any residents disagree with the appointments, a petition can be made for the city to hold an election, in which case the number of signatures needed is 10 percent of the number of voters who voted in the city’s last election.

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