The Story County Board of Supervisors meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 27, was supposed to be a short affair with little to no drama.
Supervisor Martin Chitty, likely more upset than he’s ever been at the board table, criticized Supervisor Lauris Olson for asking him if he would accept her nomination to chair the board in 2018 outside of a public meeting. After she was alerted that she might have broken Iowa’s open meetings law, Olson notified the Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB) and the public of her conversation with Chitty.
Chitty, a Republican, wasn’t present at last week’s meeting when Olson brought it up, and he said Story County Attorney Jessica Reynolds had advised him to communicate with Olson either in a public meeting or with her or her staff present. His irritation was two-fold: that he, who supports current Board Chair Rick Sanders, was even asked to consider the nomination and that Olson didn’t earlier tell him that she had contacted the IPIB.
“Did you not think I was worthy of notice of this?” Chitty said. “Because you didn’t. Shame on you. I’m a better board member than that; you’re not.”
He said there was a “political feel” to Olson’s actions and took offense that she asked him about the potential nomination while Sanders was out of town for a family matter. He declined her offer.
Olson, a Democrat, said that initially she thought their conversation was permissible, and when she was informed otherwise, she felt it prudent to go to the IPIB, describing her situation as “stuck between rock and hard place.”
Over the past six months, Olson and Sanders had been the two supervisors who’d publicly — and sometimes vehemently — disagreed at board meetings, often about Olson’s role as a supervisor and whether she acted outside it. But on Wednesday, at a limited-agenda meeting with votes that usually only take only a few minutes during regular board meetings, Chitty and Sanders roles initially reversed with Sanders at the beginning staying out of the discussion.
But Chitty soon jumped in after Olson said she’d be bringing “an agreement of the operating principles for the Board of Supervisors” to the board next week, adding, “We’ve already discussed before that we don’t have any operating principles as a board about who can do what.”
Sanders called Olson’s comment a “ludicrous assertion” and referred to the section of Iowa Code covering boards of supervisors. Olson said there isn’t a consistency to how each supervisor operates, and Chitty’s response was that she might be uninformed because of her “presence or lack thereof” in the Story County offices.
“I think you need to take this job as a full-time thing, be present for it, show interest in moving about other than in an electronic form,” Chitty said.
Olson turned back to July, when she was alerted of low morale within the county staff. That same month, she’d tried to file insubordination charges against a county employee for not following directions. After that, she said she started to work from home more.
“Now I’m being chastised for helping diffuse the situation,” she said.
Minutes later, Sanders revealed he’d been tracking how often he, Chitty and Olson had been working in and out of the office this month, based on each of their calendars. According to his calculations, he worked an averaged of nine hours a day, Chitty worked eight and Olson worked four.
Sanders told Olson the job of supervisor is not one she could do from home.
“You don’t even have to be a good supervisor. Just become a marginal supervisor, and we’ll be just fine,” he said, delivering one of several eyebrow-raising comments from the meeting.
After the meeting, Olson said she sometimes doesn’t put all her work, which she said is much of the time research based, on her calendar. She called claims that she doesn’t work hard “so not true.”
Along with bringing proposed “operating proposals” to the Jan. 2 meeting, Olson also said she’d made an open records request for emails she suspects Sanders sent to county staff who don’t directly report to the board, giving them instructions.
By themselves, individual board members aren’t supposed to instruct county staff. Olson herself was told not to do it at a meeting in July when she filed the insubordination charges against Leanne Harter, the county’s outreach and special projects manager.
“I feel that I’m being held to a different standard, unfairly held to a different standard,” Olson said.
She said she recalled two instances where Sanders gave staff directions that they found uncomfortable and asked for the records to see if her memory was correct.
In an interview, Sanders said he knew which instances Olson was talking about.
“If she’s looking to catch me in a ‘gotcha’ moment, I think she’s going to be sadly mistaken,” he said.
He said he thinks Olson is “fully vested” in keeping him and Chitty from being re-elected. Olson, meanwhile, wondered if Chitty’s anger about the IPIB and her request for Sanders’ emails are connected.
“I can’t help but (think) they aren’t related here,” she said. “That’s my feeling.”
Speaking about the difficulties of her first year in office, Olson also mentioned that Reynolds, a fellow Democrat who’s advised Olson multiple times to not act outside her role as a supervisor, supported a different candidate in 2016 and “spoke out against” Olson in 2014. The supervisor said that “becomes of concern” to her, but she wants to give Reynolds the opportunity to represent her because Reynolds takes her job seriously and does a good job.
Earlier this month, Reynolds told Olson that she could have put the county at legal risk when she appeared to negotiate with the Ames City Council about participating in a housing study last month. On Wednesday, Olson said she’d consulted with a personal lawyer who’d found Iowa Supreme Court cases that say she didn’t put the county at risk.
“What I’m saying is it’s hard for me to develop the trust in her,” Olson said of Reynolds. “So I’m going to put that on me, OK? It’s harder for me to develop that trust I need in that she is representing the best interest of not only the county but me as a supervisor, representing the county.”
When reached for comment, Reynolds said her job is to give “competent legal advice” and that she did in the matter of the Ames City Council meeting. But it’s up to the individual supervisor whether to follow that advice, Reynolds said.
“I always give (Olson) the best advice in the interest of Story County,” Reynolds said. “And it’s my job at times to disagree with specific people when it’s in the best interest of the citizens of Story County … I do the right thing for the right reasons and I’m unapologetic about that.”