Notice posted in internal hallway of building “reasonably calculated to apprise the public of the information”

by Gary Taylor

City of Postville, et al v. Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission
Iowa Court of Appeals, June 10, 2015

This case came back to the Court of Appeals on remand from the Iowa Supreme Court.  In its 2013 decision the Supreme Court determined that there was a genuine issue of material fact on the issue of whether placing notices of Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission (Commission) meetings on a bulletin board in the building’s interior hallway outside the meeting room complied with Iowa’s Open Meetings Act.

Iowa Code 21.4 provides in part:

…[A] governmental body shall give notice of the time, date, and place of each meeting including a reconvened meeting of the governmental body, and the tentative agenda of the meeting, in a manner reasonably calculated to apprise the public of that information. Reasonable notice shall include advising the news media who have filed a request for notice with the governmental body and posting the notice on a bulletin board or other prominent place which is easily accessible to the public and clearly designated for that purpose at the principal office of the body holding the meeting, or if no such office exists, at the building in which the meeting is to be held.

The facts relevant to the issue raised were recited by the Court of Appeals:

“The bulletin board is approximately thirty to forty feet from the main public access door.  The board is not visible from the entrance door to the office.  The office is open to the public Monday through Friday from 8:00am to 4:30pm…. The testimony indicated the bulletin board was visible from the reception area, but the board’s contents were not.  The Commission’s secretary testified that you could not specifically see what was on the bulletin board from the reception area.  The meeting notices have been posted on the same bulletin board in the same hallway outside the room where the Commission has met for at least twenty years.  While the general public did not regularly frequent the hallway, or the Commission’s building itself, the public was not prohibited from entering or viewing the contents of the bulletin board.  The receptionist, who had worked at the Commission for thirty-two years, testified she never turned a member of the public away from the door. However, she could not recall any member of the public ever coming to the office to ask when and where the Commission met.”

Approximately ten years before the lawsuit was filed, the Commission installed a new bulletin board located in the reception area of the building immediately inside the front door, but the meeting notices continued to be posted on the original bulletin board down the hall outside the meeting room.  The Court of Appeals observed, however, that “there is no indication that posting the notice on the new bulletin board would have resulted in more members of the public being apprised of the meetings since the only people to frequent the building were those who had business with the Commission or had an appointment.”  The Court concluded that “the statute does not require the notice of the meeting be viewable twenty-four hours a day, or that it be in the most visible place available.  All that is required is that the Commission substantially comply with the requirement that the notice be posted ‘in a manner reasonable calculated to apprise the public of the information.'”   Substantial evidence was present to support the district court’s conclusion that the Commission had met this standard.

Volunteer members of regional planning commission board not subject to penalties for open meetings violations

by Gary Taylor

City of Postville et al., v. Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission et al.
(Iowa Supreme Court, June 7, 2013)

The Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission is a regional planning commission serving five northeast Iowa counties that is organized under Iowa Code chapters 28E and 28H. There are twenty-four commission members.  None receive compensation for their service on the commission, except that three members have salaries for full-time government positions that require them to serve on the commission.  Others receive reimbursement for mileage.

The commission was examining the feasibility and cost of either expanding the Postville office of the commission, or locating alternative office space in any of the five counties.  Contract negotiations for properties in the five-county area took place, and on September 23, the commission held a meeting to approve a contract to purchase property in either Decorah or Postville. Sixteen members attended. After lengthy discussion, the motion was made to approve a proposed purchase contract for the Decorah property. The attending members unanimously agreed with a proposal to conduct the vote by secret ballot. The members cast their ballots and then publicly counted the votes. The motion to purchase the Decorah property was approved 10-6.

Immediately after the vote concerns were raised about the propriety of the secret ballot vote under the Iowa Open Meetings Act (OMA). After the meeting one of the commission members told another member before leaving that there was a problem with the ballot vote. The same night, this concern was relayed to the commission’s executive director. The following Monday after the vote, all commission members received an email indicating concern about the legality of the secret ballot vote. Several members proposed that if the voting members revealed their vote and recorded their decision in the minutes, then the commission’s action would be legal. The commission also contacted the State Ombudsman’s Office, which recommended sending new written ballots to each voting member. The commission heeded this recommendation and instructed each voting member to reaffirm their vote and include their name on the ballot. Of the sixteen original voting members, one abstained, another returned the ballot unmarked, and a third did not return the ballot at all. Six members changed their votes in the subsequent reaffirmation. Despite this, the outcome remained the same with ten “yes” votes in favor of purchasing the property in Decorah. The commission distributed revised minutes of the meeting, which listed the name and vote of each member who was present for the September 23 meeting.

The City of Postville and a resident taxpayer of Allamakee County filed suit claiming fifty-one violations of the OMA for actions taken associated with the office relocation decision and several others.  Among the remedies requested by the City was an order that commission members be held personally liable for the OMA violations.  The district court found for the Commission on all counts.  The City appealed to the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals boiled the claims down to three primary issues:   (1) whether a volunteer of a governmental body is immune under Iowa Code section 28H.4 for damages due to OMA violations; (2) whether the governmental body’s meeting notices met OMA requirements; and (3) whether a certain publication is a newspaper of general circulation, as required by section 28E.6(3)(a).

Volunteer immunity under OMA.  The commission and its members admitted to violating OMA with respect to the secret ballot and subsequently when the commission reaffirmed the vote by mail; however, they argued they are immune from liability under the state immunity provision in Iowa Code section 28H.4(2), which provides that “a director, officer, employee, member, trustee, or volunteer is not personally liable for a claim based upon an act or omission of the person performed in the discharge of the person’s duties, except for acts or omissions which involve intentional misconduct or knowing violation of the law, or for a transaction for which the person derives an improper personal benefit.”

The Court of Appeals noted that “intentional misconduct” requires more than a reckless disregard for the law, and a “knowing violation” requires a deliberate or conscious act. The court found no evidence that the actions of the members amounted to intentional misconduct or a knowing violation. Instead, the record shows the members did not identify an issue with the secret ballot vote until after its completion. Upon identifying the problem, the members self-policed their actions and took corrective measures.

On appeal the city argued for the first time that the immunity provided in 28H.4 does not apply to violations of OMA; however, because the court does not decide issues not presented in district court the issue was “left for another day.”

Posting of meeting notices.  The City alleged the commission conducted improper closed sessions lacking reasonable meeting notice from October 28, 1999, through August 19, 2010, basing its claim on the fact the commission posted its meeting notice on a bulletin board located in the hallway of the commission’s Postville office. The bulletin board is approximately thirty to forty feet from the main public access door, and is not visible from the entrance door to the office. The office is open to the public Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.

OMA requires notices of meetings to be provided “in a manner reasonably calculated to apprise the public” of the date, time, location and subject of the meetings.  One manner of notice specified in OMA is to “post the notice on a bulletin board or other prominent place which is easily accessible to the public and clearly designated for that purpose ….”  The court remanded the case to the district court for further inquiry into whether the meeting notices met this standard.  It noted that the commission secretary posted the notice on the board at least five days in advance of each meeting, but the public generally does not utilize the hallway where the bulletin board is located unless the individual has an appointment or uses the restroom. The question remained how often the public uses the hallway or if the board and its contents are visible from the reception area.

Newspaper of general circulation. Iowa Code 28E.6 requires councils of governments to annually publish the “names and gross salaries of persons regularly employed by the entity” in “one newspaper of general circulation within the geographic area served by the joint board of the entity.” The City contended the Olewein Daily Register was not a newspaper of general circulation because there are no individual subscribers to the paper in three of the five counties, and no business subscribers in four of the five counties.

The court noted that the statute only requires publication in one newspaper – the legislature expressly stated it is not necessary to publish in multiple newspapers within a single geographic area. Moreover, it is not necessary to publish using a newspaper outside the geographic region. The undisputed record established there is no single newspaper available that has subscriptions in all five counties within the commission’s service region. The commission specifically selected the Register because it is the only daily newspaper serving the five-county area. A “newspaper of general circulation” is a publication that “contains news and information of interest to the general public, rather than to a particular segment, and that is available to the public within a certain geographic area….[It is] not determined by the number of its subscribers, but by its diversity….More compelling is the fact the Register serves the same area as the commission.”  The court sided with the commission on this claim.

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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