Roger Shebetka is the new mayor of Springville.
Shebetka’s 5-vote election victory in November had been contested by the incumbent, Rick Heeren, but a rarely used election-challenge process called a contest court on Thursday sided with Shebetka.
The contest court included a representative chosen by each candidate as well as a third member, Cedar Rapids attorney Brian Fagan, who was the presiding judge of the contest court appointed by the chief judge of the District Court.
However, the decision came down to Fagan, as the other two representatives sided with the mayoral candidate who had picked them.
In the end in his six-page ruling, Fagan, a former Cedar Rapids City Council member and mayor pro tem, portrayed Springville as an idyllic place despite the mayoral-race dispute.
A key allegation made by Heeren and his contest court representative centered on Treva Davis, the head of the library board and a Shebetka supporter, whom Heeren and his representative contended hung around inside the library on Election Day and tainted the vote.
Fagan said Heeren’s right to challenge the election outcome was “an important check on the election process.”
However, he said there was no evidence presented to the contest court to show any impropriety that should alter the result of the Nov. 5 election.
Shebetka received 142 votes to Heeren’s 137.
The three-member contest court met on three days in late December and in January and subpoenaed witnesses and, at the Heeren representative’s request, viewed surveillance camera footage from inside the Springville Memorial Library, the city’s polling place, on Election Day.
Heeren’s representative, Lena Gilbert, watched hours of surveillance tape in an effort to pinpoint moments when Treva Davis might have influenced a voter.
However, Fagan concluded that witness testimony and the video surveillance tapes showed Davis, the library board president, to be “an engaged and hands-on” member of the library board who did not attempt to interfere with anyone’s vote. He called it “unfortunate” that one voter thought Davis was a poll worker and asked her a question at the polling site.
Gilbert also alleged that the Janice Johnston, the chairwoman of the three-member team appointed by the Linn County Auditor’s Office to run the polling site, should have asked Davis to leave the polling area. The polling site workers also let two voters vote shortly before the polling site officially opened at 7 a.m. on Nov. 5, Gilbert said.
Fagan said none of the behavior of the poll workers impacted the vote, and of the two early votes, he said the poll workers “erred on the side of allowing a qualified voter to vote.”
Fagan said the testimony and videotape showed that Election Day 2013 in Springville was “clearly, and expectedly, not just a civic contest, but a community event” held in a public facility where residents go to vote and go to enjoy the library at the same time.
“Residents, voters, volunteers, candidates, public employees, friends, acquaintances and rivals show up to exercise their franchise and participate in one of the most familiar pageants in the practice of our democracy,” Fagan said in his ruling.
In the court testimony, he said he found a town where residents and precinct election officials discussed a broad range of topics at the polling site — nursing home placements, getting to the grocery after voting, Thanksgiving pies and the book club meeting at the library on the night of the election.
“These activities and conversations are what animated Election Day in Springville,” Fagan said. “Of course, there is an opportunity to reinforce certain practices in the training of precinct election officials and the use of public officials. However, the events of this day are the hallmarks of community, not (an indication) of fraud, corruption, misconduct, voter intimidation or voter interference.”
Mayor-elect Shebetka last night said he expected the result and said there never was any substance to the allegations of wrongdoing.
He agreed with the sentiment of Fagan’s ruling, saying the polling place on Election Day in Springville is a place for people who have not seen each other for a time to stand around and visit.
“It’s almost a social event,” Shebetka said. “That doesn’t mean there are any improprieties in voting or anything such as that. People don’t talk about who they vote for. That’s privileged and private.”
Heeren did not return a call.
Heeren was required to post a $1,000 bond to cover costs for the election contest should he lose. However, Linn County Auditor Joel Miller said the costs for the contest trial were about $2,100, and Fagan’s ruling said all the costs are assessed to the contestant, Heeren.
The county would have assumed the costs if Heeren had prevailed and the election result was set aside or Heeren was named the winner.