Here is my last-ditch appeal to City Council members sent April 10, 2007. I did not send this to the Mayor nor the City Manager, as they struck me as out of control on the issue. Instead I addressed it to each council member by name and sent it to their home address.
If you were a Council member interested in getting reelected and you received this letter, wouldn't you insist on a Council vote to put yourself on record as having some level of sanity on the issue? None of the current Council members in Ankeny did.
But they did, depending on who you believe, either A) violate Iowa's open meetings laws and made a decision about this secretly (as the Mayor claimed in this letter), or B) surrendered their power to the City Manager's office who actually makes all such decisions in something sounding pretty close to a puppet government (as the City Manager claimed in this letter).
Dear City Councilmen Welch:
The purpose of this letter is to make sure that the City of Ankeny’s disposition regarding my Christmas light display, as expressed by the City’s actions from my meeting with Police Chief Mikulec last summer through today, and as recently affirmed by Mona Bond to several Legislators, including the Chair of the House Local Government committee, is, in fact, the position of the Council as well. Because, what little I know of you gentlemen and the great deal I know of this issue, I suspect it isn’t, and that city staff has taken advantage of your trust and willingness to subrogate your authority to them. Resulting in a dangerous and untenable position by the City that can only be corrected by you not just intervening, but taking charge, right now.
Assuming (actually, hoping) you have been kept in the dark on this issue, here is what has transpired to date.
On September 9 of last year I made the mistake of going to the police chief to try to solve any potential traffic problems in advance – traffic patterns, restricting parking a few hours a day if needed, or anything else I could do to be a good citizen. He was hostile from the start, ultimately admitting that I wasn’t breaking any laws, but that he didn’t want me doing the display at all because the police might get a call that they would have to deal with.
Following that meeting he gave Amy Beattie an assignment: There is no law against Christmas lights, but find something – anything – that we can go after this guy with anyway. It could have been any number of things, but Amy chose our public nuisance ordinance, and, on October 30, sent my wife and me a certified letter threatening us under that statute.
I went ballistic and sent you guys a letter objecting to the City’s preemptive and unfair treatment. That is when the only good thing that happened all year took place. You told the staff to work with me, and they put up signage to keep traffic from clogging up the cul de sac at the end of my street.
What you probably don’t know is that at the same time Jim Spradling was telling me that the certified letter was a “misunderstanding,” our police chief not only took the threat directed at me in the certified letter at face value, he actually took it a couple of steps beyond what was stated. He made sure his officers were familiar with the nuisance ordinance and ordered them to do two things if there was a single call related to my lights: 1) document that there are visitors on their dash cam, then 2) shut me down immediately citing that ordinance. So much for your direction. Unless that was your direction.
Once the season started and the lights came on, the Ankeny police received a total of exactly one complaint call related to my display during the entire Christmas season -- an anonymous call that some driver was blocking a driveway (ironically, the one example the Chief told me in September they wouldn’t come after me for but would go tell the driver to move). So they did as they had been ordered and shut me down, citing that ordinance.
I said that the Ankeny police only received one complaint call during the season. But, actually they received three -- the original call that somebody was blocking a drive, plus two angry complaints from visitors waiting in line with their families who were outraged by Ankeny's heavy-handed mishandling of the situation. By way of perspective, a recent article in the Des Moines Register noted that the police in West Des Moines received ten complaints in all of 2006. The Ankeny police received two in one night. Not even counting the remaining visitors booing the officer when he left my house.
I have subsequently done everything I know how to do, or have been asked to do, to get this problem corrected before next year. Because, as I outlined in my presentation to the Council February 19, this is going to go very well for the City. Or it is going to go very badly. (Yes, I own TheCityThatStoleChristmas.com Web site).
Just know that, if the way things have gone do not reflect the way you intended for them to go, this problem isn’t going to get fixed by giving direction to staff. Somebody there is determined to go a different direction, and they’ve ignored you completely to this date.
As for me, I will assume that no news -- sooner rather than later at this point -- is bad news.
David A. Sanderson