Supervisors Mark Groenendyk and Steve Wanders

In this file photo from Jan. 21, 2020, supervisors Mark Groenendyk and Steve Wanders participate in a Mahaska County Board of Supervisors meeting. The county received another adverse ruling this week in its ongoing fight against the proposed South Central Regional Airport.

OSKALOOSA — An attempt by the Mahaska County Board of Supervisors to have a court reconsider an adverse 2018 ruling was denied by a judge Monday.

Judge Crystal Cronk ruled Monday against the county's request to reconsider a 2018 order that found the county was in breach of contract with the cities of Pella and Oskaloosa.

The ruling repeats the court's finding that the intergovernmental agreement between the cities of Pella and Oskaloosa, and Mahaska County, under Iowa Code Chapter 28E, "is valid and enforceable, and the agreement did not violate public policy."

The 2018 ruling ordered Mahaska County to begin participating "in good faith" toward completing the proposed South Central Regional Airport and to abide by the agreement's termination clauses which require all three entities to approve a party's termination.

On Monday, the judge also declined to issue sanctions against the attorneys for the cities. The county had argued the cities' attorneys violated professional conduct rules by not disclosing adverse legal authorities to the court in a motion, but the court said no violation had occurred.

Judge Cronk also ruled that a previous claim by the cities of Pella and Oskaloosa that Mahaska County reneged a promise to close 220th Street and build a service road was not frivolous. The cities dropped their claims relating to 220th Street in May.

The court ruled the claim had merits, even though the county didn't take formal action on the street's closure.

"Without reaching the merits or making any findings of fact, the Court finds the claim to be reasonable and made in good faith," Judge Cronk wrote in her ruling.

To support the ruling, the judge said a letter sent by then-Mahaska County Engineer Jerome Nusbaum included a statement that the street would be closed upon the environmental determination by the Federal Aviation Administration.

A November trial is scheduled to decide the county's counterclaim against the cities, which fights against closing 220th Street for the project. That's the only pending legal matter still under consideration in the suit.

The judge has not yet ruled on the county's request to continue the November trial. An attorney for the city filed a response to the county's request, stating the cities of Oskaloosa and Pella don't necessarily object to a continuance but don't want the trial delayed beyond May 2021.

Costs of lawsuits adding up

Legal fees in the fight have cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars so far. Expenses for Mahaska County in the airport lawsuit have tallied nearly $400,000 in expenses from November 2019 through June. Meanwhile, the cities of Pella and Oskaloosa have spent nearly $150,000 combined through July, a total the two cities split 50-50.

Des Moines-based Belin McCormick PC has worked 175 days between November 2019 and June 2020 in the county’s legal action with Pella and Oskaloosa. The action started with the cities suing the county for breaching an intergovernmental agreement for the airport, but continues with Mahaska County’s counterclaim unresolved.

Since the firm began work for the county, the supervisors have racked up $387,851.96 in legal expenses since November through July. The Oskaloosa Herald obtained legal billings under the public records law. Bills from August and September weren’t available at the time of the Herald’s records request.

Mark Groenendyk, the chairman of the Mahaska County Board of Supervisors, said last Tuesday during a supervisor’s meeting that roughly half a million dollars have been spent on matters involving the airport.

He said it was the cities that sued the county, but a judge sided with the two cities long ago, saying the supervisors had breached their end of the contract for the South Central Regional Airport Authority. The only pending litigation in the case currently is the county’s counterclaim against the city over 220th Street.

“The cities of Oskaloosa and Pella actually sued the county, trying to claim damages,” Groenendyk said last Tuesday. “We’re now three years down the road, $500,000 expense, and they’ve dropped their claim.”

He characterized that the county was forced to spend $500,000 to “determine that the board didn’t take a vote."

In February 2019, a judge ruled in favor of the two cities that Mahaska County had breached its contract as part of the SCRAA. An order directed it to allow its representative to the regional airport authority to attend meetings and for the county to “participate in good faith.”

The night of Groenendyk’s comments, Oskaloosa City Administrator Michael Schrock during the city council’s meeting disputed the claims.

“They said we were suing them, our lawsuit is settled. The city won that case,” Schrock said. “So the only thing that was outstanding is their countersuit against us and the Site A Landowners …”

Schrock’s comments were about the county’s lack of participation in projects he felt would benefit the region with their involvement, including a prospective federal grant to study completing a highway bypass ring around Oskaloosa to aid in truck traffic, as well as a project to connect Highway 63 and Highway 23.

“They (the county) just don’t want to work with the city,” Schrock said. “I hope we can get through that.”

The cities of Pella and Oskaloosa have split a total legal bill of $148,391.91 through July 31, according to public records obtained by the Herald.

With the growing legal expenses in the SCRAA case, but also separate bouts with Mahaska County Emergency Management and the county 911 board, spending for the supervisors has increased.

The yearly budget for the supervisors has grown more than three-fold in five years. The budget for their department grew from $151,870 in the fiscal year 2015-16 to $725,145 for the most recently completed fiscal year — a 377.48% increase.

The supervisors have sued Mahaska County Emergency Management and the 911 board twice in as many years.

So far litigation costs tallied by the supervisors fighting against Mahaska County Emergency Management and the 911 board have totaled $292,682.98 since June 2018.

The other side of that lawsuit, emergency management and the 911 board, have tallied $28,386.75 in the matter through July 31, according to records obtained by the Herald.

Kyle Ocker is the group editor of the Oskaloosa Herald and the Ottumwa Courier. He can be reached at kocker@oskyherald.com. Follow him on Twitter @Kyle_Ocker.

Group Editor

Kyle Ocker is a Centerville native and award-winning multimedia journalist. Kyle is currently the first vice president of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and vice president of the Iowa Print Sports Writers Association.

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