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Vestal: Coulee City mayor pays price for doing things his way

Wed., Sept. 29, 2010

I don’t need to tell you: We live in a politically fractious time.

Everyone’s ticked off at everyone else. Red states and blue. Democrats and Republicans – to say nothing of the internecine battles within. The very idea of civil disagreement seems quaint as a small-town soda fountain.

Except – as anyone who’s ever gone seriously rural knows – small towns can be filled with political fights that would make Shakespeare blush.

Take Coulee City, a town of about 650 at the south end of Banks Lake. A new mayor has shaken up the old order, and his critics want him tossed from office. Mayor Rick Heiberg is accused of various counts of mis- and malfeasance in a recall effort initiated with the Grant County auditor last week.

The last straw for his critics was his decision to buy a $15,000 truck for the public works department without council approval; the purchase was rejected by the City Council, and Heiberg has since bought the truck himself. The “statement of charges” filed to initiate the recall process also accuses Heiberg of dumping tree limbs at a city park, misusing city equipment for personal gain and holding improper meetings at his house, among other things.

“There has been just nonstop talk about these problems for the last four or five months,” said Jennifer Schwartz, a 35-year-old mother of three and former council member who’s leading the recall effort. “There’s been a big line drawn between people who are new here and people like me who’ve been here for a number of years.”

The purchase of one pickup? The dumping of tree limbs at a park? Is this a tempest in a teapot? Joyce Kannenberg would say it is – though she would not dispute that it’s a tempest. One City Council meeting where the truck issue was hashed out this month had to be moved to the fire department, where it was standing room only, she said.

“As far as I know, he made one little mistake,” said Kannenberg, an 18-year resident of the town. “They’re just making a mountain out of a molehill. … They’re really, really trying very hard to oust him, but there are a lot of us who are for him.”

Heiberg acknowledges making a mistake on the truck purchase but denies the other allegations. He said the recall effort is being mounted by people who have lost political power, and he describes a series of relentless, petty battles that have occurred since his election in 2008.

“It’s sour grapes all the way,” said Heiberg, who retired after a 37-year career with Boeing and moved more than a decade ago to the sunny side of the state. “It’s three people who have lost the influence they used to have. … This has gone on and on and on, and it’s made it very difficult for us to attend to the business of the city.”

The three people Heiberg refers to are Schwartz, who lost her council seat in 2008 and whose father quit his post as city superintendent because he was unhappy with the new mayor; Lorna Pearce, whom Heiberg fired as city clerk and who’s now suing over her dismissal; and local newspaper editor and council member Shirley Rae Maes.

Schwartz insists the campaign against Heiberg isn’t sour grapes. She says she and Pearce have firsthand experience with the right way of doing things at City Hall, and that Heiberg repeatedly violates the rules and, in some cases, the law.

“It’s more of a concern over the welfare of Coulee City,” she said, adding later, “We did do things a certain way – and that way is following the rules.”

Schwartz and Pearce filed a statement of charges with the Grant County auditor; if a judge finds that the allegations meet state standards for a recall, then they can collect signatures to put a recall on the ballot. It would take roughly 80 signatures, or 35 percent of the electorate from the last vote.

Under state law, an elected official can face recall for acts of misfeasance or malfeasance, or for violating the oath of office – basically for improper or illegal activity.

Recall elections are pretty rare in this state. I couldn’t find anyone who tracks them, and I talked to several people with excellent political memories who could remember only the recall of Spokane Mayor Jim West in recent years.

“I’ve never had one since I’ve been here, and I’ve been here for 20 years,” said Grant County Auditor Bill Varney.

The truck purchase brought things to a head this month. It was discussed and debated at two meetings, including a special meeting, and Schwartz described it in a press release as causing “an uproar among the City Council and citizens alike.”

Instead of running the purchase past the city council and soliciting bids, Heiberg bought a used truck from a private citizen for $15,000. The city limits the mayor’s purchasing authority to $3,000. The council later voted not to accept the truck – forcing Heiberg to buy it personally to clear up the problem.

“We know that he does know what the rules are,” Schwartz said. “He knows the rules. He just chose not to follow them.”

Heiberg says he’s just trying to spruce up the town and is upsetting the old guard along the way. He envisions the day when Coulee City might be a Leavenworth or a Winthrop, he says – one of those small towns people head for on the weekend. He and his wife purchased bright green T-shirts for volunteers working to clean up the town, he said, and he hopes the recall doesn’t derail his efforts.

“Anything’s possible,” he said. “But I believe we’re on the right track.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.


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