The Iowa Supreme Court has closed a potential loophole that would have made it significantly easier for government officials to deliberate in private. In a four-to-three ruling, the high court says that government officials can’t skirt Iowa’s open meetings law by deliberating public policy through an agent.
The case regards layoffs of Warren County employees two years ago. The Warren County Board of Supervisors had the County Administrator Mary Jean Furler relay messages among the three board members, to avoid deliberating the layoffs in public.
In Iowa a meeting is defined as a majority of the members of a governing body meeting either in person or electronically to deliberate. The board assumed that by communicating through Furler, they weren’t breaking the law.
As a result, 12 employees received notification of their pending termination and severance offers weeks before the board voted publicly on the reorganization.
The high court says if the supervisors used Furler as an agent, a meeting was still taking place since Furler was carrying out actions on the supervisors' behalf.
In his dissent, Justice Thomas Waterman says the ruling treats a government employee as an elected county supervisor. He wonders how government officials can work efficiently, now that private conversations are far more limited in scope.
The case now returns to the district court, where it must be decided if the county administrator did in fact act as an agent.
Advocates for government transparency say this sort of shuttle-diplomacy hurts democracy, which relies on a well-informed voters. Though, they caution that in larger governing bodies, these sorts of walking quorums are still legal.