Iowa Supreme Court ruling toughens open meetings law; staff acting as agents count toward quorum

A recent Iowa Supreme Court ruling is expected to toughen the state's open meetings law, finding a county administrator should be counted the same as an elected official in determining whether a majority of board members were present at private meetings since she was acting as an "agent" for other board members not in attendance.

Many public bodies – including the Bettendorf and Davenport City Councils – have in the past intentionally held less-than-majority meetings to circumvent the state's open meeting law and avoid 24-hour public notice and public inclusion in the sessions.

In the Warren County case, the board administrator attended meetings with one other member of the three-member board to work out a reorganization that resulted in the elimination of 11 county employees.

"We conclude the legal equivalent of an in-person gathering of a majority of the members of a public body takes place whenever a majority of the members of a governmental body meet, whether each member attends personally or through an agent," according to the 4-3 court decision issued March 18. "Indeed, the concept of agency is so fundamental to the common law that some courts have assumed a gathering personally attended by fewer public officials than is required to satisfy a statutory definition of “meeting” may nonetheless constitute a meeting whenever a sufficient number of public officials attend the gathering by virtue of their agents."

"In summary, the open meetings law does not prohibit discussions between members of a governmental body and its staff to exchange ideas and gather information in order for the body to act upon an issue during an open meeting," at the court said. "However, the open meetings law does prohibit the majority of a governmental body gathering in person through the use of agents or proxies to deliberate any matter within the scope of its policy-making duties outside the public view."

"The open meetings law is intended to safeguard free and open democracy by ensuring the government does not unnecessarily conduct its business in secret," the majority opinion concluded.

The case was remanded back to the district court to "determine the nature and extent of the actual authority" the county supervisors gave the administrator to deliberate the reorganization plan "outside the public view in an attempt to avoid triggering the open meetings requirements."

The dissenting supreme court justices, including Davenport attorney Thomas D. Waterman, argued the majority opinion "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 countered that the decision will "have a chilling effect on well-intentioned public officials," and that the current open meetings law limiting open meeting requirements to a gathering of a majority of elected officials "provides a workable bright-line rule that allows elected officials to prepare for open meetings in smaller private groups."

CLICK HERE to download the full court decision.

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