Open government scores Supreme Court win

By Erin Jordan
Cedar Rapids Gazette

In a victory for open government advocates, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday [March 18, 2016] that elected officials can’t skip public meetings by communicating through a government employee as a proxy.

The court decided 4-3 to reverse a Warren County decision, saying the district court incorrectly interpreted Iowa Code Section 21.2 on open meeting requirements.

“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,” the ruling states.

“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 policymaking duties outside the public view.”

Six employees of Warren County, which is south of Des Moines, sued the Board of Supervisors and Warren County in April 2014, alleging the board had violated Iowa’s open meetings law after surprising employees with a reorganization that eliminated positions and departments, the ruling states.

Testimony at that trial revealed County Administrator Mary Jean Furler had numerous one-on-one discussions with board members Douglas Shull, Steve Wilson and Dean Yordi about the reorganization in the months before the plan was unveiled.

Shull testified he started talking with Furler about the plan in January 2014 and said other supervisors also began meeting individually Furler to discuss the reorganization, “though no two supervisors were present at the same time when these discussions occurred.”

During a 20-minute public meeting April 18, 2014, the board unanimously passed resolutions approving the reorganization. No public comments were allowed.

The state Supreme Court found the district court erred by not considering Furler as an agent of the board, allowing members to discuss and reach consensus without meeting the technical requirements for having a public meeting.

“The supervisors used Administrator Furler to deliberate the reorganization plan in that manner because they knew the plan would be controversial and anticipated conflict and discomfort would result if they discussed it in a public forum,” the ruling states.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to district court “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.” If the district court reaches similar conclusions to the high court, it should “grant the employees appropriate relief.”

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council lauded the decision, saying it sends a strong warning to government bodies.

“This clearly is a victory for the people of Iowa who want their government to be conducted in public, where they can see what is occurring,” said Executive Director Randy Evans.

“The Warren County Board of Supervisors deliberately went out its way to avoid any public discussion of the proposed reorganization until after board members had decided how the workforce would be shrunk and whose jobs would be eliminated.”

The ruling comes during Sunshine Week, a national celebration of open government and transparency.