IOWA CITY — The role of the city attorney is vast, particularly in communities as large as Iowa City.
Broadly, city attorneys represent city departments and staff, the city council and boards in legal matters. Those can range from employment and property law to economic development to planning and zoning.
For Iowa City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes, it all boils down to finding and solving problems.
“A good attorney is good at spotting issues,” Dilkes said. “If you can’t spot issues, you can’t function well as an attorney.”
For a quarter century, Dilkes has been spotting and addressing issues for Iowa City. Hired as an assistant city attorney in 1996, Dilkes has been the city’s lead attorney since 1997. She is set to retire April 16.
“I’ve been working since I was 14 years old,” she said. “It’s almost unimaginable that I’m going to wake up Monday the 19th and not go to work.”
Born in Tennessee, Dilkes grew up in Iowa City, graduated from City High and attended the University of Iowa for her undergraduate degree and law school. After college, Dilkes worked at a large firm in Minneapolis before joining a small private practice in Iowa City. But after seven years, Dilkes said she didn’t like the work and decided to apply for a position with the city.
That decision proved to be a wise one for Dilkes, who is always seeking a new challenge.
“I have never been bored at this job,” she said. “There’s always something new. There’s always a reason why my mind has to work pretty hard to figure things out. That’s challenging work.”
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Dilkes has helped the city navigate a plethora of legal issues, from affordable housing to state legislation challenging local efforts. Most Tuesday nights, she can be found offering legal advice to the City Council and ensuring meetings are properly conducted.
“The hardest thing for me to get used to when I became the city attorney was giving legal advice in a public setting,” Dilkes said. “Most of the time in other practice areas, you give your client advice confidentially. … In this setting, you’re often answering questions that you haven’t been asked when you’re sitting in a public meeting. That took some real getting used to for me.”
Dilkes said the other difficult part of her job is when the political discourse becomes personal and mean-spirited.
“That continues to be hard,” she said. “That’s hard for everybody, and it’s not productive.”
But Dilkes said she has enjoyed working with “an incredible staff” of attorneys, legal assistants and city employees over the years. As far as Dilkes knows, she’s Iowa City’s longest-serving city attorney and is proud of what she’s accomplished in that time.
“I would say that I have for 25 years — in an environment that is at times difficult and politically charged — provided good quality legal advice in a timely manner and been an effective member of the city team that is dedicated to implementing the goals of the City Council,” she said.
Assistant City Attorney Eric Goers, who has worked alongside Dilkes since 2005, said her best traits are “her exceptional work ethic, her ability to quickly decipher even the most complicated or nuanced legal issues and her dedication to her staff.” He also praised Dilkes’ troubleshooting capabilities.
“She is very knowledgeable about municipal law … but she’s also a problem solver,” Goers said. “She looks to see what council and the city manager are hoping to achieve and does her best to find a way to get there.”
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City Manager Geoff Fruin said Dilkes has been far more than just a city attorney. He describes Dilkes as a trusted mentor who has helped the city face its challenges.
“Her creative thinking and solutions-oriented approach to her work enabled us to accomplish so much as a community,” Fruin said. “Having Eleanor on our team has been the equivalent of having a city attorney, city manager and department director all wrapped up in one person.
Added Fruin, “Her leadership and positive influence in our organization has been immeasurable and will be missed greatly. … Her legacy extends far behind specific projects and will be seen in the team she has led and employees she has mentored and inspired during her tenure.”
Dilkes said she isn’t quite sure what retirement will hold 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’s planning her fourth attempt at piano lessons as well.
“I worry about not having the intellectual challenges, but other than that, I don’t have any doubt that I will occupy my time,” she said. “I’ve been advised by other people who retired that it’s best to give myself a year before making any major commitments. I’m hoping to be true to that and just take some time, take at least a year to figure out how it is I want to live the rest of my life.”
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