Rural residents may not get fire protection

West Liberty city council hears attorney for first responders


presenting the West Liberty Fire & Ambulance Service and area rural fire districts resulted in a special meeting to be held last night (Wednesday, April 28) to discuss issues between the City Council of West Liberty and the rural fire districts which includes Atalissa and four Muscatine County townships, a Johnson County township and two townships in Cedar County.

Bill Tharp, a life-long West Liberty attorney who is representing the first responders free of charge, was cut short on the public speaking portion of the city council meeting on Tuesday, April 20, by Mayor Robert Hartman.

Later in the meeting, the city leader asked for a special “public safety” meeting at 5 p.m. at the West Liberty Public Library board room to “review the agreement,” asking for invitations to the meeting be sent to rural and city fire and ambulance leaders. Instead, that meeting was held on Sunday night. (See additional story on page 13).

Hartman, who said he didn’t want to cut the attorney short but was required to do so because of city policy, asked his council to attend the meeting.

“I’m blowing the whistle,” said Tharp, calling the issue “very, very important” to the citizens of the community. “The city of West Liberty has done something I could never have imagined,” noting it was threatening to leave rural residents “stranded” without fire and ambulance service by June after terminating a contract that had been in place since 2007 at a last-minute “emergency” March 31 meeting.

He called the meeting illegal because there was not 24 hour notice given to the public and said the council “robbed people of their opportunity to speak” about the situation, calling it “really disappointing.”

“The city has made a practice of not being fully transparent,” Tharp said, noting “you’ve not only lost my trust, but the trust of everyone here.”

Tharp vowed to ‘stop this from happening” and warned he “may need to take legal action.” He did not favor taking the issue to court because it would cost city taxpayers money, but said the whole issue “should be able to be taken care” in a simple discussion or meeting.

The mayor cut Tharp short after five minutes, giving him one extra minute to “wrap it up.” Tharp responded by saying giving him only five minutes to talk about such an important issue was a “disgrace” and told the council an “official litigation hold” has been put on any legal documents or notes regarding agreements with the fire departments, making sure they cannot be shredded. He warned to take legal action against the city “unless all is rescinded” concerning the current agreement, which he said was different from an agreement the city had talked about at a Feb. 11 meeting.

West Liberty, which has the largest fire department in the area with approximately 30 volunteers, will be limited on service outside of the city limits should the agreement remain intact. Kirt Sickles is the fire chief and attended the meeting. He did not speak.