IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Rejecting a practice commonly used by some government boards, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday that private meetings can be illegal even when a majority of members aren't physically present.
For years, many members of county boards, city councils and school boards have met privately with staff to deliberate on controversial matters outside of public view. As long as a quorum isn't present, they contend that the requirements to notify the public in advance and have an open meeting don't apply. Often, the closed-door decisions are formally adopted later during brief public meetings with little discussion or input.
In a first-of-its-kind ruling in Iowa, the court decided 4-3 that those private meetings are illegal if the board or council members use staff as conduits to share their views and negotiate policies. Any meeting called to discuss public policy in which a majority of a body's members are present "by virtue of an agent or proxy" — such as a staff member representing their views — is subject to the law's requirement of an open meeting, the court ruled.
Dissenting justices said the new standard would be impractical, adding that no other state appeals courts nationwide have adopted it.
"This clearly is a victory for the people of Iowa who want their government to be conducted in public, where they see what is occurring," said Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which had joined a friend-of-the-court brief urging the court to rule in favor of more openness.
The ruling comes in a case involving the Warren County Board of Supervisors, which sought to avoid public discussion of a reorganization plan in 2014. To get around the open meetings requirements, the board's three members had a series of individual meetings with the county administrator to negotiate the details of the downsizing, which included several layoffs. The plan was never discussed in public before it was adopted.
Six laid-off employees filed a lawsuit, contending those private meetings violated the law. Supervisors acknowledged that they used the administrator as a conduit to negotiate the plan behind closed doors, but argued that was legal because a majority was never present together.
Justice David Wiggins said that adopting the county's interpretation of the law "would clearly be at odds with the intended scope and purpose of our open meetings law," which is designed to ensure the government doesn't do business in secret. The supervisors' strategy limited public controversy and worked, allowing them to reach compromises and implement the plan "without deliberating a single detail" in public.
"The legislature clearly intended public bodies subject to the open meetings law to deliberate the basis and rationale for important decisions such as these, as well as the decisions themselves, during open meetings," Wiggins wrote.
Dissenting Justice Thomas Waterman said the court should have maintained the longstanding requirement for a majority of board members to be physically present for the meetings law to apply.
"The majority opinion today replaces a clear, easy-to-follow rule with a vague standard that will invite costly litigation and deter diligent public officials from conferring with administrators to prepare for public meetings," he wrote.