Iowa Court Affirms Attempt to Hold Election of Drainage District Trustees

August 6, 2021 | Kitt Tovar Jensen

On August 4, 2021, the Iowa Court of Appeals addressed the validity of a petition filed by landowners to elect private trustees, rather than the county supervisors, to manage their drainage district. This is the second case in two months involving a dispute within this drainage district. This time, the court ruled that the landowners’ petition was valid and that they were entitled to hold their requested election.


A group of landowners in Drainage District 37 (DD37) signed a petition requesting to change the management of their district by holding an election for private trustees. Private trustees may be elected to manage a drainage district if the proponents file a petition “signed by a majority of the persons including corporations owning land within the district assessed for benefits.” Iowa Code § 468.501 (emphasis added).

In analyzing the sufficiency of the petition, the Board of Supervisors divided the properties into six different categories of ownership: single ownership, dual ownership, corporations, trusts/estates, multiple ownership, and government.

Although 55 percent of record landowners in the district signed the petition, the Board applied a different method to determine whether the requisite majority was attained. The Board first found that landowners with fractional shares did not possess true ownership because a single individual could not sell the land. In the district, several properties had multiple owners with an interest ranging from 1/13 to 1/3 of the parcel. The Board determined that if a majority of the owners in a category of ownership signed the petition, that unit should receive only one vote. After tabulating the results applying its majority owner method, the Board determined that the requisite majority was not reached since only 39 out of 81 owners (48%) signed the petition. The Board thus refused to order an election under Iowa Code § 468.502.

The landowners challenged the Board in district court, claimed that the votes of fractional owners should be included in the calculation, not just the categories of ownership. The district court agreed with the landowners and found that 75 out of the 136 landowners signed the petition. The Board appealed.

Petition for an Election of Private Trustees

On appeal, the facts surrounding each parties’ calculation was not disputed. However, which party used the correct method depended on whether the phrase “persons including corporations owning land” includes fractional ownerships. See Iowa Code § 468.501. The Board once again asserted that a person with a fractional share could not sell the property so such an interest was not ownership.

The court started its analysis by noting that the language of Iowa Code § 468.501 is straightforward. Although “person” is not defined in Chapter 468, it is commonly understood to mean “human.” Chapter 468 does not mention categories of ownership which the Board used to determine the majority. It does, however, contain sections on voting procedure and qualifications.

Looking at Chapter 468 as a whole, the court found that several listed voting formulas and methods are more restrictive than others, depending on the situation. See Iowa Code §§ 468.28, 468.126(4)(e) (listing the requirements for establishing a drainage district.). Section 468.511 addresses voter qualification and states that each landowner is entitled to one vote. The court also referenced an Iowa Attorney General Opinion stating that “[w]hen two or more persons are tenants in common…each of them is a land-owner in our view of the matter, and each would be entitled to vote.” Drains: Voting by Joint Landowners, 1941WL 79728, at *1 (Iowa A.G. Jan 15, 1941).

The Board argued that the landowners’ method would “create mischief” and allow a landowner to transfer his land to a large group of people to sway the vote. The court rejected this argument, finding that an adequate remedy existed in § 468.511, allowing landowners to vote in proportion to their assessed benefit. Finding that the law creates a more demanding formula to change management from the private trust model than to establish the private trustee model, the court affirmed the ruling of the district court. The court said that it could not find a reference to the Board’s proffered formula and that if the Legislature had intended the court to have used such a formula, “it would have said so.”