IOWA CITY – The city attorney’s role is big, especially in communities as big as Iowa City.
By and large, the city’s lawyers represent the city’s departments and staff, the city council, and the boards of directors in legal matters. These can range from labor and property law to economic development to planning and zoning.
For Iowa District Attorney Eleanor Dilkes, it all boils down to finding problems and solving them.
“A good lawyer is good at spotting problems,” Dilkes said. “If you can’t spot problems, you can’t be a good lawyer.”
Dilkes has discovered and addressed problems for Iowa City for a quarter of a century. Dilkes was hired as assistant city attorney in 1996 and has been the city’s chief attorney since 1997. She will retire on April 16th.
“I’ve been working since I was 14,” she said. “It is almost inconceivable that I would wake up on Monday the 19th and not go to work.”
Dilkes was born in Tennessee, raised in Iowa City, graduated from City High and attended the University of Iowa for her bachelor’s degree and law school. After college, Dilkes worked for a large company in Minneapolis before moving to a small private practice in Iowa City. But after seven years, Dilkes said she didn’t like the job and decided to apply for a job with the city.
This decision turned out to be wise for Dilkes, who is always looking for a new challenge.
“I’ve never been bored with this job,” she said. “There is always something new. There’s always a reason my mind has to work pretty hard to figure things out. It’s a challenging job. “
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Dilkes has helped the city handle a wide variety of legal issues, from affordable housing to state laws that challenge local efforts. Most Tuesday evenings, she provides legal advice to the city council and ensures that the meetings are conducted properly.
“The hardest part for me to get used to as a city attorney was giving legal advice in a public setting,” Dilkes said. “In other areas of activity, you usually advise your customers confidentially. … With this setting, you often answer questions that were not asked in a public meeting. It took some getting used to for me. “
Dilkes said the other difficult part of their job is when political discourse becomes personal and mean.
“It’s still difficult,” she said. “It’s hard for everyone and not productive.”
But Dilkes said she enjoyed working with “an incredible staff” of attorneys, paralegals and city officials over the years. As far as Dilkes knows, she is the senior city attorney in Iowa City and proud of what she has accomplished during that time.
“I would say that for 25 years – in an environment that is sometimes difficult and politically charged – I have provided high-quality legal advice in good time and am an effective member of the city team that is committed to implementing the goals of the city council” , she said.
Assistant Attorney Eric Goers, who has worked with Dilkes since 2005, said her best qualities were “her exceptional work ethic, her ability to quickly decipher even the most complex or nuanced legal issues, and her dedication to her people.” He also praised Dilkes’ troubleshooting capabilities.
“She’s very knowledgeable about local law … but she’s also a problem solver,” said Goers. “She’s seeing what the city council and city council are trying to achieve and doing her best to find a way to get there.”
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City administrator Geoff Fruin said Dilkes was much more than just a city attorney. He describes Dilkes as a trusted mentor who has helped the city face its challenges.
“Their creative thinking and solution-oriented approach to their work have enabled us to achieve so much as a community,” said Fruin. “Having Eleanor on our team meant that a city attorney, a city administrator and a department head were combined in one person.
Fruin added, “Your leadership and positive influence in our organization has been immeasurable and very much missed. … Her legacy goes far behind certain projects and will show in the team she led as well as in the people she mentored and inspired during her tenure. “
Dilkes said she wasn’t entirely sure what retirement would mean for her. She has no intention of leaving Iowa City and looks forward to spending time with family and friends, reading, gardening, and running. She is also planning her fourth attempt in piano lessons.
“I worry that I won’t have the intellectual challenges, but otherwise I have no doubt that I’ll be consuming my time,” she said. “I have been advised by other retirees that it is best to take a year off before making any major commitments. I hope that I can stay true to this and take some time, at least a year, to figure out what it is like that I want to live the rest of my life. “
Notes: (319) 339-3155; [email protected]