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.

 

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.

Nebraska Supreme Court addresses standing to challenge annexation, and Open Meetings Act issues

by Melanie Thwing

Schauer v. Grooms
(Nebraska Supreme Court, August 6, 2010)

Curt and Susan Schauer live just outside of Ord in Valley County, Nebraska. In 2005 the City decided to recruit a developer to build and operate an ethanol plant on undeveloped land. Eventually, Redevelopment Area #3 (located 4 miles outside of the City’s border, and 1/8th of a mile from the Schauer’s farm) was chosen as a potential plant site.  Redevelopment Area #3 was declared blighted, then the city annexed the land to make TIF financing available for the project. 

After Val-E Ethanol was selected to construct and operate the plant numerous city council meetings were held. These meetings spanned from February to November 2005, from the time the land was blighted, a plan adopted, a financing agreement was decided and the land annexed.  These meetings were publicly noticed, consistent with Nebraska’s Open Meetings Act; however, on June 1, 2005 a dinner and tour of a similar ethanol facility were hosted by the Valley County Economic Development Board hosted without public notice.  Invitations were sent to numerous county residents including Schauers (who did not attend). Three of five city council members, and the mayor, were in attendance. (The city council consists of five people, overseen by the mayor who provides the deciding vote if there is a tie). The council members and the mayor were split into separate groups to tour – one group watched a video explaining the ethanol-making process while the other toured the plant. At the dinner the members of the council and the mayor discussed no information relating to the proposal.

Four months after the city council approved the annexation, the Schauers filed an action to void the annexation and to claim a violation of Nebraska’s Open Meetings Act. Summary judgment for the City was granted, and the Schauers appealed. 

The Nebraska Supreme Court first investigated whether the Schauers had standing to challenge the annexation.  The Court reviewed previous caselaw on the rights of landowners to challenge municipal annexations.  “This Court has never held that a neighboring landowner, who neither owns a property interest in the annexed territory nor will be subjected to new zoning regulations as a result of annexation has standing to challenge the annexation of someone else’s land….” Further, the Court noted that standing has never been conferred in an annexation challenge “simply because of proximity.”  The Court concluded that the Schauers did not have standing to challenge the annexation.

The Court did find the Schauers, as citizens of Valley County, had standing to bring a claim for violation of the Open Meetings Act.  The Schaurs first argued that because the City described Redevelopment Area #3 as “within the City” in various documents prior to annexation of the land it was misleading to the public. The Court disagreed, finding the contents of the notice reasonable.  The notices described the exact location of the property and included a map of the vicinity.

Next, the Schauers contended that the minutes of the city council meetings failed to identify an established method of notice, which they claim violated the Open Meeting Act. The Court also dismissed this claim.  It had been the long standing history to post agendas at the township library, the County courthouse, and city hall, as well as being made available at the city clerk’s office. The Open Meetings Act simply requires the public body to choose a method of notice, and that the method chosen be recorded in the minutes. In this case, the city clerk was able to establish through testimony that a consistent method of notification had been utilized.

The Schauers finally alleged that the tour and dinner on June 1, 2005 constituted a meeting, that public notice of the meeting was not provided, and it therefore violated the Open Meetings Act.  The Court again disagreed.  Under §84-1410 of the Open Meetings Act no informal meetings can be used for the purpose of circumventing meeting requirements. This however, does not apply to any chance meetings, or travel of members of the public body where no action is taken on matters they supervise.  The Court found that no policy decisions were made or discussed during the tour and dinner.  The separation of city council members into smaller groups was not done to circumvent the Open Meetings Act; rather, the small groups were acquiring information that was later commented on by the public in an officially-recognized meeting of the council. The Court stated that the Open Meetings Act, “does not require policymakers to remain ignorant of the issues they must decide until the moment the public is invited to comment on a proposed policy.” One purpose of the Open Meetings Act is to balance the public’s right to be heard and the public’s “need for information to conduct business.”

The Court then observed that there were never more than two city council members together at the same time during the evening.  The Court noted that the presence of the mayor was immaterial, as the mayor is not a member of the city council.  “The fact that a statute gives a certain official the right to cast the deciding vote in case of a tie…does not, of itself, make that official a member of that body for the purposes of ascertaining a quorum or majority….”  

The decision of the district court was affirmed.

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