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Sanborn, Iowa under scrutiny for gender imbalance

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A small town in northwest Iowa has drawn scrutiny from state officials who say local authorities are flouting state rules that mandate gender balance on all boards and commissions.

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The Office of the Iowa Ombudsman has asked the Sanborn City Council to reconsider a recent decision to ignore a female candidate for the three-member Sanborn Electric and Telecommunications Utility Board, which had previously been all-male. The council reappointed longstanding board member Jim Cravens instead.

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 of Sanborn questioned the constitutionality of the law in his initial response to the City Council. The city has until Nov. 30 to respond to the ombudsman’s office.

City attorney Daniel DeKoter declined comment. City Administrator Jim Zeutenhorst said Sanborn had not formally decided how to proceed and would not discuss the situation further. Cravens, a local bank president, also declined comment.

Linda Rath, the local business owner who was denied the board post, said she was not planning legal action.

“It was a surprise it went the way it did and yet it didn’t surprise me because I know Mr. Cravens has been a leader in the community for a long time,” said Rath, 61, who runs a lumber yard with her husband in the town about 30 miles south of Worthington. “I think it’s a good old boys network.”

Rath noted that women serve on other boards in Sanborn. According to the city website, women are serving on the Park and Recreation Board.

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

How this case could be resolved is unclear, as the ombudsman’s office has no enforcement authority and the law has no built-in penalties for noncompliance.

According to a letter from the ombudsman’s office to Sanborn officials, Cravens’ most recent six-year term was set to expire in mid-2013 and 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 letter from Assistant Ombudsman Burt Dalmer argues the council violated the mayor’s appointment authority and failed to consider gender balance.

“It is without question that the Council lacked the authority to appoint Cravens to the Board, and that it perpetuated a gender imbalance by doing so, in defiance of state law,” the letter states.

DeKoter questioned the constitutionality of the gender rules in his letter to the city, saying Cravens, who has served on the board for over 30 years, is a more qualified candidate. He suggested one option for the city would be to file a lawsuit, noting that the law has not been tested in the courts.

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 202 of the state’s most populous cities, finding that 49 percent of city boards and commissions are balanced.

Catt Center director Dianne Bystrom said she was encouraged by the initial data and said publicizing the numbers was more effective than trying to toughen the law.

“I think it should be a goal, and counties and cities should make a good faith effort to meet that,” she said.