In a tense, more than 40-minute meeting that featured pointed exchanges and members talking over one another, the Scott County Board of Supervisors voted along party lines Tuesday morning to appoint former Davenport Alderwoman Kerri Tompkins as the next Scott County Auditor.
Supervisors voted 3-1, with Democratic Supervisor Brinson Kinzer voting "nay" and urging the board to reconsider and instead hold a special election. Fellow Democratic Supervisor Ken Croken voted "present."
Republican supervisors Ken Beck, Tony Knobbe and John Maxwell voted in favor of Tompkins' appointment to fill the vacancy left by former Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz.
Moritz, a Democrat, retired April 23. Scott County Treasurer Mike Fennelly will oversee the auditor's office until Tompkins assumes her new role, which had yet to be determined.
Tompkins would serve until voters elect an auditor to a full term during the next general election in November 2022, unless Scott County Democrats succeed in a petition drive to force a special election.
The petitioners will need to collect nearly 9,300 valid signatures from eligible Scott County voters in 14 days, due to recent changes made by state lawmakers to Iowa elections laws.
Croken made a failed motion to table Tompkins' appointment, criticizing the secretive nature of her selection and the lack of opportunity for supervisors to thoroughly vet her qualifications and for the public to weigh in prior to the vote. The motion also failed along party lines.
"It is irresponsible of the board to approve an appointment for such an important position when we only received the name of the appointee last night after business hours, when there could be no such time for review," Croken said. "We need to take a breath and look at this more comprehensively and more thoroughly."
Tompkins' appointment came just 14 hours after an email was sent to supervisors Monday night announcing her nomination by Beck, chairman of the Scott County Board of supervisors.
Previously, Beck and Knobbe had refused to provide Tompkins' name to other supervisors and the public at her request to give her time to notify her current employer of her decision to seek the auditor position.
"If you think that I wasn’t anxious to be shouting from the roof top the name of such a qualified candidate, you'd be wrong," Knobbe said. "She was in an employment situation that she dearly loved (and) did not want to jeopardize that situation until the likelihood of this appointment and we respected that request for privacy. ... I think the public would agree that we have an excellent candidate here, one that is well-qualified to do all facets of the job."
Tompkins served six years on Davenport City Council, after choosing not to seek re-election in 2019. Tompkins represented Davenport's 8th Ward, which covers the north-central section of the city.
She currently serves as business manager at MindFire Communications, a full-service advertising agency in LeClaire. Before that, Tompkins served as business administrator for Christ United Methodist Church for six and a half years, worked six months as a John Deere Davenport Works program manager in 2013, and a year and a half for Volt Consulting Group personnel services.
She has a master's degree in social work from St. Ambrose University, is knowledgeable with accounting principles, has financial, payroll and human resource experience, and has been a resident of Scott County for 42 years, according to a list of qualifications emailed by Beck to supervisors Monday night.
"If you take a look at the job of the auditor, the majority of it is as business manager," Beck said. "That’s the majority of the auditor’s job on a day-to-day basis."
In addition to administering elections within the county, the auditor also prepares and processes payroll for all county offices and departments, publishes records and other legal notices, and oversees certain contracts and financial disclosure documents.
"I am truly honored to be asked and to serve this role, and I look forward to it and I am very excited," Tompkins said Tuesday afternoon following the vote.
Asked how she plans to approach her new position, Tompkins said, "My job is to follow the law ... that's been laid out."
Asked her feelings of stepping into the position in the wake of concerns expressed by her predecessor of recent changes made by the Republican-majority Iowa Legislature to state election laws that Moritz and other Iowa county auditors argue will make their running elections more difficult, Tompkins reiterated she will follow the law.
"This is a role that I don't set policy. That's the legislators' (job)," she said. "My job is to follow the law that they have set in place. That's something you just work through, and if that's the law, I will follow it. ... I believe it can be done, and I look forward to learning (the law) and I look forward to doing the job."
The new Iowa law shortens the state's early voting period and altered special election law that covers the auditor’s vacancy.
The changes also strip auditors of much of their discretion in running elections in their counties, including restricting their ability to establish satellite in-person early voting sites. At the same time auditors would face stronger penalties, including a felony, for failing to carry out state election laws or to violate guidance from the Iowa secretary of state.
Asked about the partisan contention that has surrounded the process for appointing her to the role, Tompkins deferred to supervisors.
County Democrats have condemned the level of secrecy leading up to her appointment, and have raised questions as to whether Republican supervisors violated Iowa's open meetings law.
Croken enlisted an attorney, who sent a letter Friday to Scott County Attorney Michael Walton requesting his office look into the matter, suggesting Beck, Knobbe and Maxwell had reached a consensus in private, in violation of state law, on extending an offer to their preferred appointee.
Maxwell — who noted Tompkins attends the same church and served on a finance committee his wife — continued to deny prior knowledge of Tompkins' nomination.
Walton on Monday said he intends to request a closed-door meeting with supervisors at their next scheduled Committee of the Whole meeting on June 8 to discuss the letter, citing the potential for litigation.
Beck, Knobbe and Maxwell argued appointing Tompkins was consistent with past practice over the last 30 years for filling vacancies in office, and avoids a $35,000 to $50,000 cost to run a special election that typically generates low voter turnout of 2% to 3% at time when the auditor's office anticipates difficulty recruiting poll workers due to the pandemic and elections law changes.
"I consider my first responsibility to be to the taxpayers of Scott County," Knobbe said, adding he has "heard of no other suggestions from either part, or from any citizen, as to who else should be serving in this capacity."
"At what point did anyone call for suggestions?" Croken responded. "Instead we went off quietly and privately in some number and determined who it is we wanted, and now we’re determined to make that happen with or without public support."
Maxwell, who a day earlier was critical of the secretive process used to fill the vacancy and said he likely would not vote to appoint the then-unnamed candidate, backtracked Tuesday.
While calling the process "very unusual," Maxwell said he supported keeping Tompkins name under wraps to allow her time to notify her current employers in person.
"That came for me to realize that here is a person of good values," Maxwell said. "I can now vote knowing what I know, and knowing the candidate ... through my church helped me a lot to come to my conclusion."
Three Scott County residents spoke against making the appointment during the public comment portion of supervisors' Committee of the Whole meeting, which immediately followed the board's specially scheduled vote to appoint Tompkins.
Residents largely echoed Croken's and Kinzer's concerns, decrying what one called "a backroom decision," and that voters should have a say in who is selected to hold public office.
"By doing that, you can be creating real distrust," Davenport resident Jacqueline O'Donnell said. "I just think that you've created a really sad optic here about how things are run in this county."