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Ballot's Power Questions Murky
Wording Leaves Voters Unsure of Issue

Abigail McWilliam

Iowa City Press-Citizen

August 13, 2005

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]



Iowa City voters might have to spend a bit more time than usual in the voting booth on Election Day.

As they decide whom they want in office, voters also will be asked to answer two mind-bending questions that could drastically alter how power is delivered to the city.

[Voters will be asked:

"Shall the City of Iowa City in the County of Johnson, Iowa, be authorized to establish as a city utility and power plant and system?

"Shall the management and control of an electric light and power plant city utility be placed in a board of trustees consisting of five trustees as provided by law?"]

While local group Citizens for Public Power and current provider MidAmerican Energy Co. each has its own spin on the questions, voters such as Ralph Coty are just plain confused.

"I don't understand what I'm voting for," he said. "I guess the city wants to take MidAmerican out of the picture. That would be my best guess."

According to Iowa City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes, a "yes" vote is necessary for the city to proceed to the Iowa Utilities Board, which would have to approve a plan for the city to adopt municipal utility.

A "no" vote would stop the city from taking any action, and four years would need to pass before the measure could be placed on the ballot again, she said. The ballot questions were written and submitted by Citizens for Public Power.

Creating the questions

Carol Spaziani, Citizens for Public Power's campaign co-coordinator, admits the wording is awkward.

"The questions are worded that way because that's the way they are written in the state code," Spaziani said. "We had to get the petition worded so it would hold up or it would be subject to legal challenge."

The first ballot question is simply authorizing the city to run its own electric system, she said.

If the first measure passes, the city has the option of operating a municipal energy as a city department or by a board of trustees, according to state code.

However, Citizens for Public Power chose to add a question about a board of trustees, Spaziani said. The appointed board of trustees could be composed of a range of people including engineers and economists, she said.

The second ballot question becomes moot if voters are opposed to the first question, Dilkes said.

Debating the details

MidAmerican claims that Citizens for Public Power campaign efforts have skewed what the ballot question actually means.

Terry Smith, MidAmerican's Iowa City manager of operations, said proponents of public power indicate the ballot question only authorizes further study.

"That is not what the question is stating," Smith said. "If their position is that they want to study further, I would've been more supportive of that."

Smith said an affirmative vote gives the city council, and future city councils, the authority to move forward without voters' input regardless of the cost. The council could proceed with studying the issue even with a "no" vote, he said.

"My belief is that the city council would need to finance hundreds of thousands of dollars on the study... it could possibly cut other service to the city and mean not funding new initiatives," Smith said.

Proponents of public power claim that at every step, the city council will be able to reconsider and drop the process if it determines that the course of action is not in the public interest.

"That's what MidAmerican doesn't seem to understand," Spaziani said. "We are a democracy. We elect our city council and we have a right to go speak to them if we don't like what they're doing ... that's why we're so interested in local control."

Spaziani described the council's role as an "open and transparent process."

If voters approve the ballot this fall, the council would be authorized to proceed, but not required, Dilkes said.

Another confused voter, Jeff Weber, said the referendum question is drenched in bureaucratic language that doesn't tell the whole story.

"It's a meaningless question," he said. "I want to know what happens if it passes."Since the upcoming ballot also has three city council positions up for election, the makeup of the council and feelings toward municipal energy are difficult to gauge.

Proceeding with public power

Should the referendum be approved and the council chooses to proceed, the Iowa Utilities Board would review and investigate the city's petition for municipal energy.

According to Bob Hillesland, Iowa Utilities Board information specialist, the board examines public interest factors, including the city's ability to provide adequate energy and promote an efficient and economical use of energy.

The board also sets a reasonable purchase price for a city to obtain the investor-owned power system, he said.

Seven cities in Iowa have recently approved referendums and plan to proceed to the Iowa Utilities Board.

Kalona, a city of about 2,300 people, has authorized work with Latham & Associates, the consultants who performed feasibility studies for 18 cities -- including Iowa City -- in 2003.

Doug Morgan, Kalona's city administrator, said the city council has authorized $100,000 to be spent on the effort.

"Payments are not to exceed $100,000, so far," Morgan said. "That could change."MidAmerican's 15-year franchise agreement with Iowa City expired in November 2001.

Smith said MidAmerican plans to pursue another franchise agreement with the city should the public power measure fail.

"The issue will come back to city council," Smith said. "They wanted to wait for the outcome of the election and that's what we'll do."