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June 8, 2011

City takes away OTA’s autonomy

Council agrees to immediate action

OTTUMWA — Rarely does it come about that the Ottumwa City Council immediately passes and adopts an amendment to a city ordinance.

Rarely does an ordinance change have such an immediate need as did Tuesday’s change to the city’s municipal code involving the Ottumwa Transit Authority. Citing a need to have a controlling structure in place, the city passed the first consideration of the ordinance amendment changing the management and control of the city’s transit program.

The council also approved waiving of the normal second and third readings. As such, the city will take over direct control, supervision, maintenance and operation of the transit system.

“It is absolutely mandatory that this be done as a condition to working with the state,” City Administrator Joel Helfenberger stated during the discussion of the agenda item on Tuesday. “They said this would be a ‘deal breaker’ if we do not do this.”

Helfenberger told the council on Tuesday that the action needed to be taken in a timely manner.

“We have a letter stating we need to be in compliance with the federal and state guidelines by no later then June 27 if we want to be in compliance,” Helfenberger added.

City attorney Joni Keith went through the guidelines of the changes that would be enacted with the unanimous approval of the ordinance that would be given by the council. The immediate changes would keep the basic structure of the transit program in place, but would make the Board of Transit Trustees an advisory board with input on management issues only, removing the board’s autonomy.

“The changes will remove the specific management and operation of that board to the city,” Caviness said. “They are pretty simple changes, but they will have profound results.”

Acting Ottumwa Transit Authority chairman Hanna Jo Kyhl told the City Council that the board of trustees only began to fully understand the seriousness of the situation facing the transit authority following the recent release of the state’s re-audit of OTA.

“These past few weeks have been very stressful on the board,” Kyhl said on Tuesday. “We have begun to tackle the difficult tasks that are ahead. I speak for the board when I say we are committed to providing the highest level of service available in strict compliance with the federal transit regulations.”

Kyhl stated that the board of trustees would comply with the council’s decision to take over control of the transit system.

“While our customers may find some changes to our service, we believe that we can find ways with the guidance of the Iowa Department of Transportation to provide many of the services in full compliance of the law.”

The decision approved by the council on Tuesday comes in the absence of an OTA director. Both acting director Pam Ward and operations manager Tom Jones were fired on Friday,  more than a week after a state audit alleged OTA inflated ridership numbers and changed employee time sheets in order to reduce pay.

The Iowa DOT had said it plans to not renew its contract with the OTA when it expires at the end of the month without significant changes. Without renewal, OTA would be cut off from federal funding.

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