Iowa C.A. finds signatures on letter did not constitute deliberation among elected officials

by Gary Taylor

Fleener v. City of Oskaloosa, et. al.
(Iowa Court of Appeals, November 25, 2009)

Signatures on letter did not constitute deliberation among elected officials.

The Mahaska County Board of Supervisors held a public meeting on November 19, 2007, regarding the possible location of a new Pella Municipal airport in Mahaska County. The Board rejected the proposed site if it were to be used solely as a Pella airport, rather than a regional airport, and sent a letter to Pella city officials to that effect. On January 2, 2008, the CEO of Musco Sports Lighting in Oskaloosa called the Board of Supervisors office and asked for a meeting.  Not knowing the purpose of the meeting, one supervisor went alone to the Musco offices where he met with other Musco officials and the director of the Oskaloosa Chamber of Commerce.   The supervisor was informed that the Pella Airport Site Selection Task Force was scheduled to meet on January 4, 2008 and Musco was interested in keeping dialog open as to the concept of a regional airport.  An employee of Musco was present at this meeting, and was placed in charge of drafting a letter to the City of Pella mayor and city manager, anticipating gaining support from both the Oskaloosa City Council and Mahaska Board of Supervisors for Musco’s request.  With the assistance of the mayor of Oskaloosa a letter was drafted.  This letter was to signal their openness to further communicate with Pella about airport site selection. The January 3, 2008 letter read:

Airport site selection is important to the economic well-being and sustainability of the entire area.  Accordingly, for the long-term mutual benefit of our communities we would request the opportunity to participate with the Pella City Council in evaluating site selection for a new airport to serve employers and employees of the Pella and Oskaloosa communities.  Thank you.

Sincerely . . .

The Musco employee contacted various members of both the Oskaloosa City Council and Mahaska County Board of Supervisors, in hopes of obtaining their signatures.  The mayor and four of the seven Oskaloosa City Council members signed the letter, as did two of the three Mahaska County Supervisors.

On February 4, 2008, J.D. Fleener, a Mahaska County resident, filed this action against the above defendants, alleging a violation of the Iowa Open Meetings law.  The Mahaska Board of Supervisors held a public meeting on February 19, 2008, in order to authorize the sending of an additional letter to the City of Pella, clarifying their interest regarding the airport site selection.  Similarly, the Oskaloosa City Council also held a public meeting and voted to send a follow-up letter, expressing the majority of the Council’s interest in continuing dialog with Pella on the airport site selection to benefit both communities.  The Mahaska supervisors, joined by the Oskaloosa defendants, filed a motion for summary judgment of the open meetings challenge.  The district court granted the motion on January 14, 2009.

The issue in the case was whether the events culminating in the signatures of the elected officials from Mahaska County and Oskaloosa constituted a “meeting” under Iowa’s open meetings law (Iowa Code 21.3).  In her deposition, the Musco employee discussed contacting the signatories and inviting them individually to the Musco office, or volunteering to bring the letter to their home or place of business in order to sign the letter.  The court concluded that there was no evidence of an in-person gathering of any of the elected officials to discuss the letter among themselves.

The court next looked at whether an electronic gathering occurred.  The evidence indicated that the Musco employee contacted the elected officials individually, either by phone or e-mail, prior to and during the drafting of the letter.  At least one of the elected officials reviewed a draft of the letter prior to signing the final copy.  Fleener argued that these separate phone and e-mail contacts amounted to serial communications resulting in deliberation, such that a meeting occurred.  The court disagreed, however, finding neither evidence that the elected officials communicated with each other, nor intent to circumvent the open meetings law requirements.  According to the court, the most that could be said was that as the various members signed the letter, the later ones to sign knew who had signed before them.  Their signatures were based on conversations with individuals from Musco, not each other.   The court affirmed the ruling in favor of the city and county officials.

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