Emails spur controversy on Muscatine Council

By Emily Wenger
Muscatine Journal, March 18, 2016

Muscatine City Council members exchanged a series of emails beginning Feb. 29, which may be a violation of Iowa Code.

According to Iowa Public Information Board Deputy Director Margaret Johnson, in a conversation with the Journal, when advising city councils she always says, “Contact the mayor directly, don’t do ‘reply all.’ ”

Johnson said that in some cases, emails like the ones the Muscatine City Council exchanged constitute engaging in government business without informing the public, which is a violation of Iowa Code 21.8. If an event occurs as a result of the emails in the meeting with no discussion, the public may become confused.

“The reason this needs to be conducted in public is for the public to assist the council in making decisions,” Johnson said, stating that public assistance on council matters should not be taken lightly.

On the Iowa Public Information Board’s website, in response to the question, “If a majority of the members of a board are communicating online at the same time, would that constitute a public meeting?” it states, that under Iowa code 21.8, Electronic Meetings, emails among all council members at the same time does constitute a public meeting.

“Keep in mind the Legislature’s mandate that ‘the basis and rationale of governmental decisions, as well as those decisions themselves,’ should be accessible to the people. Members of governmental bodies should be cautious about discussing public business among themselves extensively outside of public meetings. Citizens become frustrated when they feel they are being shut out of the decision-making process by public officials they suspect are conducting government business and striking deals outside of the public eye,” according to the IPIB website.

Councilman Scott Natvig, although he responded privately to the mayor, made it clear that he would influence the council meeting if his suggestion was not included on the agenda for March 3.

“Since I will not be at this week’s meeting,” Natvig stated in his email, “I will talk to another Councilman and suggest that, if she [his board appointment suggestion] does not make the agenda, the appointments be tabled or pulled from the consent agenda for modification.”

During the March 3 meeting, Councilman Tom Spread moved to remove board appointments from the consent agenda, after he and Councilman Rehwaldt sent the council group emails, making the appointments up for a vote individually, rather than being approved with other business.

Although Councilman Philip Fitzgerald moved to approve the appointment of Sue Johannsen to the Board of Water, Electric, and Communications Trustees for Muscatine Power & Water, and the motion was seconded by Bob Bynum, the council did not vote on the motion and second. Councilman Tom Spread interrupted the vote and moved the appointment be tabled until a later date, and Councilman Allen Harvey seconded, which the council voted unanimously to approve.

These actions left the first motion and second without a vote to either approve, deny, or otherwise close the vote.

Although the mayor and Brandy Olson spoke about their positions on board assignments, the council members held no discussion. Their emails stated their opinions prior to the meeting.

In interviews with the Journal, both council members Spread and Tom Rehwaldt said that they understand the Iowa code, and are careful not to violate it. They also said the opinions they expressed in their emails have not changed.

The Journal is filing an informal complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board.