Iowa's Open Meetings Law On The Line

Oct 15, 2015

The Iowa Supreme Court heard a case yesterday that could result in a powerful blow to open meetings regulations in the state of Iowa. 

The Warren County Board of Supervisors laid-off twelve county employees in March 2014. Instead of deliberating in a public meeting, the three supervisors communicated through the county administrator which positions would be eliminated.

What happened here is you had a coming together of the ideas and the concepts underlying this reorganization...How can a group make a decision if it doesn't come together? -Thomas Foley, Attorney for laid-off Warren County employees

Some of the laid-off employees sued unsuccessfully in district court, saying the supervisors violated Iowa’s open meetings law. The board argues since there was no gathering, it did nothing illegal. 

The plaintiffs appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, and their attorney Thomas Foley says while the board did not meet physically or through electronic communication, a meeting still took place.

"What happened here is you had a coming together of the ideas and the concepts underlying this reorganization," says Foley. "How can a group make a decision if it doesn't come together?"

"Clearly this doesn't meet the spirit of the intent of the statute here, and I don't think anyone would disagree with that," says Justice Brace Zager, "but I'm still having a problem with finding that this meets the definition of meetings, and the concept of a coming together of our minds or ideas, and that equals a gathering."

Iowa Code defines a "meeting" as "a gathering in person or by electronic means, formal or informal, of a majority of the members of a governmental body where there is deliberation or action upon any matter within the scope of the governmental body’s policy-making duties."

Foley argues that "informal" affords latitude defining what constitutes as a meeting. He points to the fact that the statute also says instances of ambiguity should be resolved "in favor of openness." 

The public has the opportunity of course, at the ballot box...to tell these supervisors how they feel about that decision. -Patrick Smith, Attorney for Warren County Board of Supervisors

Patrick Smith, the attorney representing Warren County's board of supervisors, says the court should focus on the language in the statute which says a meeting occurs when a majority of members gather either in person or electronically. He says this would create a "bright-line rule," which would be easy to follow and understand.

But if Smith's argument is successful, that means the deliberations of elected and appointed officials in Iowa at all levels could be far less public as a result.

"Doesn’t it give a blueprint to a board of supervisors to take the most controversial and troublesome issues, all of them, and decide them without the ordinary public deliberation, outside the public view?" asks Justice Brent Appel.

"The public has the opportunity of course, at the ballot box and otherwise, to tell these supervisors how they feel about that decision," says Smith.

The court will likely rule sometime in January.