Iowa Supreme Court broadens application of Open Meetings Act by including “agent or proxy” of public body

by Gary Taylor and Hannah Dankbar

Hutchison, et al., v. Douglas Shull and The Warren County Board of Supervisors
Iowa Supreme Court, March 18, 2016

On March 4, 2014 the Warren County Board of Supervisors held a public meeting to unanimously approve an annual budget that included all county employees’ salaries, with raises.  Before, during, and after that time, however, members of the Warren County Board of Supervisors met with the County Administrator individually to discuss a restructuring of county government, which included the termination of a number of employees.  These meetings went as far back as January 2014.  On March 25 and 26 the County Administrator, one Board member and the County Attorney met with each employee who was terminated to give them notice of the restructuring and offer them a severance package, the details of which had been worked out through the individual conversations between the County Administrator and the Board members.

On April 16 six employees who were eliminated brought suit the employees who were eliminated brought suit against the County, claiming that the Board, the County, and the individual supervisors violated Iowa’s Open Meeting Law.  Then, on April 18 the Board provided notice for their next meeting which included consideration of the restructuring and the severance agreements. The meeting that day lasted about 20 minutes- the Board passed both resolutions and did not allow for public comment.

The Warren County District Court found that because a majority of the Board of Supervisors was never together in one place to discuss the restructuring, the Board did not explicitly violate Iowa’s open meetings law.  The Board members had testified, however, that they understood the law and used the various one-on-one meetings between the Administrator and the individual supervisors to work around it.  The terminated employees appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court first reiterated that ambiguities regarding the Open Meetings Law (OML) should be resolved in favor of openness.  To do so it found it necessary to resort to common law rules of “agency” to interpret OML.  “To do otherwise would undermine the clear purpose of the statute.”  After examining the common law, the Supreme Court determined that the relevant statutory definition of “meeting” in the OML should be effectively read to now say:

“all in-person gatherings at which there is deliberation upon any matter within the scope of the policy-making duties of a governmental body by a majority of its members, including in-person gatherings attended by a majority of the members by virtue of an agent or a proxy.”

Deliberation is the province of elected bodies.  An elected body cannot use agents to deliberate.  The Court was troubled by the use of the County Administrator to “conduct ‘shuttle diplomacy’ [which] worked so well they managed to implement the restructuring…without deliberating a single detail of the reorganization during a public meeting.”

The Supreme Court remanded the case back to the trial court in light of their revised interpretation of “meeting” in the OML.  It directed the district court to determine whether an agency relationship legally existed between the County Administrator and one or more of the Supervisors.

Three justices dissented, raising the following points:

  • The decision could have unintended consequences for well-meaning government actors. It arguably overrules a 35-year old case in which the Iowa Supreme Court rejected the idea that serial phone conversations with less than a majority of a board could violate the open meeting law.
  • The Iowa legislature twice considered, but failed to pass, legislation that would have addressed serial gatherings of elected officials. This is evidence that they did not intend to include such gatherings within the meaning of the existing statute.
  • Other jurisdictions have “resoundingly rejected” the majority’s interpretation of a “meeting.”
  • The interpretation will chill necessary and appropriate private consultations by public officials that precede open meetings.
  • The majority’s new agency theory rests on a legal fiction that treats the county administrator as a supervisor.

 

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