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No change to North Liberty government

NORTH LIBERTY– City government remains status quo in North Liberty.
Reelected to the North Liberty City Council were Coleen Chipman, Terry Donahue and Chris Hoffman, the three incumbents who ran for three open seats.
Hoffman was the top vote getter, with 68 percent of total votes cast in the Nov. 8 election. Chipman was a close second, with 66 percent, and Donahue followed with 61 percent. Candidate Matt Zacek, the fourth person to put in a bid for one of the open positions, garnered 51 percent of all votes. There were 30 write-in votes.
Though the council election was close, North Liberty had a meager overall voter turnout. With 8,595 registered voters in the city, just 681 people, or 7.9 percent, showed up to cast ballots. It was the lowest voter turnout in the Nov. 8 elections of all the municipalities in Johnson County. Even Lone Tree, with just 74 voters, turned out a higher percentage (9.2 percent) of its registered voters than North Liberty. Neighboring Solon brought 36.14 percent of its registered voters to the ballot boxes last week. Only University Heights had a higher turnout than Solon, with nearly 60 percent of its registered voters showing up at the polls.
Chipman encouraged voter participation throughout her election campaign, particularly in response to a citizens’ petition calling for a change in the way council members are elected, from the current at-large system to a ward system of representation.
“Seven-point nine percent was a disappointing turnout,” said Chipman, expressing equal surprise at the scarcity of candidates on the ballot. “ If people were concerned about a ward system, I thought more candidates would have come forward from those areas they felt were underrepresented.”
Chipman said the ward proposal presented was not the best for North Liberty, as it would have limited representation even further. Rather, Chipman said, she would consider a district system that includes at-large council members.
“Either way, I would like it to begin with a grass roots movement. Let’s start with honest discussion about whether other forms of government would serve North Liberty better.”
The ward measure failed, with 60 percent of North Liberty voters– 408 of them– saying no to ward representation. There were 268 voters, or 40 percent, who voted in favor.
Chipman, who works in the University of Iowa College of Dentistry’s business office, will begin her second term on the North Liberty City Council.
“My first order of business will continue to be Highway 965, because it has such an impact on all of North Liberty and the people who come through it. We will continue to plan and design improvements as funds become available.”
Chipman said uncertainty in the Iowa legislature’s plans for property taxes and tax increment financing have created some anxiety for cities. Given that uncertainty, said Chipman, the council has informally agreed to wait until fiscal year 2013 to make additional upgrades to the highway.
“We are trying to be conservative as we wait and see what they will do,” she said. “I am excited at what we have accomplished in last four years, but we still have to look at our wastewater system as the population continues to grow. I don’t ever want to have to say to a developer or business owner, ‘No, you can’t build because we don’t have the infrastructure in place to handle it.’”
Also elected for a second term was Donahue, who retired from public service as an associate warden at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center about four years ago. Donahue also served on the city council in Creston, and was mayor of that community for 14 years.
Donahue said he stays involved with municipal government because it is one of his “pride and joys.”
“As long as I feel like I have something to contribute, I will keep my name in there and keep working.” His immediate focus for the next year, and possibly two, he said, will be property tax rates.
“We have to be very cognizant of possible property tax changes that could happen in the legislature,” said Donahue. “Depending on what happens there, it could have a drastic impact on how we continue paying bills on our bonds, accordingly.”
Donahue said he has always been mindful of legislative impacts on the local level, but he will remain extra vigilant of the state-level discussions in the near future, and consider how the city might “provide alternatives and options for how we can best implement any changes and still maintain the quality of services we have,” he said. “Our projects may have to slow down a little bit, and maybe even skip a full year, as far as bonding for any major projects.”
Hoffman, a former personal banker and registered finance advisor who is currently a stay-at-home father and part-time para-transit driver for Johnson County SEATS, was also reelected to a second term.
Hoffman said after moving to North Liberty in 2002, he quickly developed a desire to give back to this community through public service. He served on the city’s Telecommunications Commission before being elected to council in 2007. At that time, said Hoffman, the city administrator was new, the city planner position had just been added, the majority of city council was newly-elected, and the city was experiencing such overwhelming growth that the first order of business was to bring stability to the inner workings of the city.
“The city was in such need for decisions, and for people who could pick up the ball and start moving it forward,” said Hoffman. “A confluence of people were put into place that made such a difference,” he said; specifically, the addition of staff that helped city employees efficiently accomplish their duties, make improvements, set goals and become strong advocates for the city. Hoffman said North Liberty’s successful growth is due in no small part to its city staff.
“Every developer who comes to the city to talk about a proposal says (he or she) has learned a lot and enjoyed working with our city staff. This staff spends a lot of time educating them on the process and nurturing their ideas to help them fit into the vision we have for North Liberty.”
Carrying that vision into the future was Hoffman’s reason for running for council again.
“I am so excited for what North Liberty is now,” he said. The council and city’s accomplishments of the last four years have been many, and much has been done without significant tax increases.
“We went from an increase in 2008 to a decrease in 2011, and the net change in the tax rate has been about 10 percent from 2007. That’s a pretty good track record for the amount of work getting done here,” said Hoffman. “That said, we still need to ask, ‘What can we do as a city to make the tax rate more manageable?” Hoffman said his goal is to pose that question, and others, to North Liberty’s small business owners.
“I have a strong sense that the business community feels left out and not represented,” he said. “I want to touch base with these folks and ask what has been missing, in the last year especially. I think they didn’t feel part of the decision-making process and felt they were not being heard. If you can spark more of that conversation, we will have a healthier community.”
Looking ahead, Hoffman said he expects North Liberty council members to also have a certain amount of healthy disagreement and discourse.
“We three incumbents don’t always agree on how to solve individual issues, and it’s okay to disagree,” said Hoffman, “but more important is for us to voice our reasoning; when you hear someone else’s reasoning, it helps you understand where they are coming from.
“I think we all know that in the next two years, we are going to have five people willing to disagree, but it will all be for the betterment of North Liberty.”