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West Liberty direct assistance program in limbo following mayor's resignation

The West Liberty City Council from left to right: Jose Zacarias, Dana Dominguez, Mayor Katherine McCullough, Omar Martinez and Cara McFerren. (City council member Diane Beranek not pictured.)
Tar Macias
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Three elected officials on West Liberty City Council have resigned. from left to right: Jose Zacarias (left), Katherine McCullough (middle) and Diane Beranek (not pictured). Acting-Mayor Cara McFerren (right) Omar Martinez (second from the right) and Dana Dominguez remain on council.

West Liberty has seen three resignations in as many months, and now the city's ARPA funded direct assistance program is facing pushback.

It’s been a long year for West Liberty City Council. The volunteer fire department threatened to end services over issues with city management. Iowa Capitol Dispatch reported the city’s hire of a former Marion police officer who was fired for dishonesty. And conversations over an American Rescue Plan-funded direct assistance program—while initially supported by the council—have stalled.

Taking a nod from Johnson County's direct assistance program, West Liberty aimed to disperse $147,000 of its $522,000 American Rescue Plan dollars among residents. Like in Johnson County, the program was advocated for by The Iowa Catholic Worker House in hopes of sending checks directly to residents—some of whom are undocumented and were ineligible for COVID-era stimulus assistance.

But a run of resignations has stalled its momentum. It began with Dianne Beranek and Jose Zacarias. And on Tuesday of this week, Mayor Katherine McCullough emailed council and staff that she was also resigning. She said it was for personal reasons.

"Right now, the city needs somebody who has had some experience doing that," McCullough said.

Looking to leave someone with experience in leadership, McCullough surprised some by changing the order of her succession. Council member Dana Dominguez had been mayor pro tem, the second in line. But McCullough reassigned roles putting Cara McFerren in the pro tem slot. This after McFerren signed on to a June 16 letter calling for McCullough’s resignation. As of Wednesday, she was acting mayor.

On Friday, West Liberty announced that it did not have the capacity to run the program. Acting Mayor Cara McFerren has been a critic of the direct assistance program in the past and told IPR News she does not support outsourcing the program's administration to a third party.

“I want to help people and we're looking at other avenues to be able to help our community without having to jeopardize the money that we've actually got," McFerren said. "If a good share of that money is going to administrative costs, then what good is it?”

City Council and staff did discuss the possibility of a third party taking on the administrative load but nothing has materialized. As of Friday, the city had not requested proposals for a third party to run any part of the program, so the actual cost remains unknown.

Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa