April 2011

On Wednesday, April 13, 2011 the Iowa Court of Appeals issued a decision in Bettendorf v. Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz which reversed a lower court decision regarding the timing of vacancy elections. 

Auditor Moritz had told Bettendorf that the city should formally ask to include a vacancy on the city park board on the 2010 general election ballot.  In response, Bettendorf filed a law suit seeking to nullify the Auditor’s interpretation of Iowa law, citing 20 years of past practice as one of the reasons.  The local court sided with Bettendorf, but the Appeals Court ruled the provision had to be read in context with the entire statute, an argument that the County had made to the local court.  The practical effect of this ruling would have been to place this vacancy before the voters of Bettendorf seven months after the appointment, instead of 20 months after the appointment. 

Of course the 2010 general election has already occurred and the issue would be moot.  The Appeals Court found that it could reach the issue involved in the case, even though the 2010 general election had already occurred, based on the public interest exception to the mootness doctrine.  The question presented to the court was public in nature (as opposed to a private dispute), public officials were seeking the court’s guidance and the issue was likely to arise again.

The decision in this case turned on statutory interpretation.  However, there is an additional layer of constitutional law which had not been pleaded at the lower court level and therefore not before the Court of Appeals.  Article XI, Section 6 of the Iowa Constitution provides for filling vacancies by election.  It states in pertinent part, “(A)ll persons appointed to fill vacancies in office shall hold until the next general election, and until their successors are elected and qualified.”  The Iowa Supreme Court has interpreted this language to mean that vacancies in elective office must come up for election at the next general election.  See, State Ex. Rel. Halbach v. Clausen, 250 N.W. 195 (Iowa 1933).

A bill now before the Iowa Senate would attempt to negate this requirement by defining the term “general election” to include an additional “city general election” during which vacancies in city offices would be placed on the ballot, and preventing such vacancies from being on the general election ballot. 

However, this provision would run afoul of Article II, Section 7 of the Iowa Constitution.  Article II, titled Right of Suffrage, makes various provisions regarding elections and the right to vote.  Section 7, titled General election, defines the general election to include state, district, county and township offices, and grants authority to the general assembly to set the time for such general election.  It does not give the general assembly authority to create special categories of general election such as “city general election.” 

Arguably, those who want to change this provision for vacancy elections need to address this at the constitutional level with an amendment to the Iowa Constitution.  Amending the Iowa Constitution would require a vote of the people to approve the amendment.  This only makes sense because it is their right to vote for their representatives which is at stake in this matter.

Auditor Roxanna Moritz today unveiled to the general public the Scott County GIS website during a news conference at the Administration Center.  She was joined by Board Chairman Tom Sunderbruch, Ray Weiser, Scott County GIS Coordinator, and Kathy Kolar, Auditor’s Office Tax Deputy, each of whom addressed specific areas regarding the public release of GIS.  Also speaking was Bob McGivern of the real estate appraisal firm of Koestner, McGivern & Associates.  McGivern was a member of the public focus group which evaluated the website and made suggestions for improvement. 

Poster display shows the history of GIS development, member of the public focus group and a contrast of old paper plat maps and new GIS digital maps.

By Iowa law the Auditor’s Office maintains the plat book and transfer book to ensure property owners can maintain accurate and clear titles to their real estate.  In the past people interested in real estate transactions needed to physically visit the county plat room to obtain the information they needed to conduct business. 

With the roll out of web-based GIS, this information will be available to people in their homes and businesses 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  This represents a powerful transformation of the way the county manages and shares maps and other real estate information, in essence creating a new real estate business model.  Information can now be shared easily, accessed quickly, and readily combined and analyzed with other data.

GIS stands for geographic information system.  The GIS map service provides access to digital aerial photographs of real estate, showing parcels, lots, subdivisions, dimensions, streets, addresses and more.   Users will be able to retrieve other data, such as taxes and assessments, and link to additional owner records such as deeds and surveys. 

Auditor Moritz speaks with the news media during the officials release of the Scott County GIS website.

GIS has led to increased efficiencies in county operations.  For example, in the Auditor’s Office we have been able to reduce staff by one position, saving tax payers $46,000 in the upcoming fiscal year.

Board Chairman Tom Sunderbruch addressed the broader public impact of GIS for Scott County.

Focus group member Bob McGivern praised Scott County for providing public information free of charge.

Scott County began planning for GIS in 2002.  Aerial photography occurred in 2005.  Parcel conversion, actually drawing property ownership lines into the digital maps, began in 2007 and ended in 2010.  A public land section survey, began in 2007 and ended in 2009, used GPS technology to develop a highly accurate framework of section corners to ensure the accuracy of individual parcel maps.  The project was completed 2011 with a comprehensive address data base for use in public safety and other county processes.