- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 5, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - The northwest Iowa town of Sanborn apparently has opted not to change course after drawing scrutiny for allegedly flouting state rules mandating gender balance on boards and commissions.

Because there is no penalty for breaking those rules, it seems likely the Sanborn Electric and Telecommunications Utility Board will remain a boys club. The city was singled out by the Iowa Ombudsman’s office in October after the Sanborn City Council chose to disregard a female candidate for the three-member utility board. They reappointed longstanding board member Jim Cravens instead, meaning the panel remained all-male.

According to a letter The Associated Press obtained that Ombudsman Ruth Cooperrider sent to the Sanborn mayor and City Council members this week, the town did not take any of her suggested corrective actions, even after several communication attempts. She expressed frustration that the town appears to be ignoring the guidance, but said this would be her final contact on the issue.

“We remain convinced that Council’s actions were contrary to its ordinance and Iowa’s Gender Balance Law,” the letter states. “It is unfortunate that, despite our best efforts, Council did not take an active role to discuss and address these concerns as a group. This is not the way for a responsible and accountable city council to act.”

Under Iowa law, officials must take gender into consideration when making appointments to state-level boards and local government panels. The rules requiring gender balance on boards at every level of government are unique to Iowa, and only when officials make a “good faith effort” but still can’t find a candidate within three months can the rule be ignored.

An attorney for the city sent a response to Cooperrider in November, saying that the city would not follow the advice. In the letter, attorney Daniel DeKoter questioned the ombudsman’s interpretation of the gender balance law and argued that Cravens‘ 34 years of board experience were invaluable.

In an emailed statement this week, DeKoter said Cooperrider’s final letter distorted “facts and applicable law.” He declined to answer further questions.

City Administrator Jim Zeutenhorst and Mayor Duane Van Veldhuizen, who was elected in November, did not respond to requests for comment.

Linda Rath, the local business owner who was denied the board post, said she was not surprised that nothing had happened.

“I’m kind of ambivalent. Nothing’s going to change,” said Rath, 61, who runs a lumber yard with her husband in the town about 70 miles northeast from Sioux City.

There is more balance on other boards in the town. The Sanborn website shows that women are serving on the Park and Recreation Board.

According to the initial October letter from the ombudsman’s office to Sanborn officials, Cravens‘ most recent six-year term was set to expire in mid-2013 and then-Mayor Thomas Ginger put off making an appointment to give the city time to advertise and recruit women to the all-male board in the city of about 1,400 people.

Two women applied, and at an August meeting, Ginger named Rath to the board. But the council instead voted 3-2 to reappoint Cravens.

The ombudsman’s office recommended that the council call a special meeting, void the Cravens appointment and consider Rath’s candidacy. But it does not appear that the lawmakers took any of that advice.

Cooperrider said that she was not planning to refer the case to another agency at this time.

“Unfortunately, part of the problem is there’s no teeth on enforcement of the gender balance law,” Cooperrider said.

The Iowa Legislature approved a law in 1987 that required gender balance on state boards, and in 2009 the requirement was extended to county and city boards, taking effect in 2012.

State Rep. Mary Masher, D-Iowa City, who supported expanding the requirements, said she wasn’t sure the legislature would approve any changes to add more penalties to the law.

The Friends of the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women and the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University have been studying how the gender balance law has worked since the county and municipal requirements took effect. The project has recently looked at 203 of the state’s most populous cities, finding that 50 percent of city boards and commissions are balanced.

Catt Center Director Dianne Bystrom said she wasn’t sure adding penalties would work but said continued education and outreach are proving effective.

“Most of the cities and towns that aren’t complying are making a good faith effort to do so,” said Bystrom.

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