Appeals court levies fines in meetings lawsuit

This article was written and transmitted by the Associated Press on Dec. 21, 2016.


In a decision likely to create concern among many members of boards, commissions and councils, the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that three county supervisors serving as trustees of an agriculture drainage district must pay thousands of dollars in fines and attorney fees for violating the state’s open meetings laws.

The case centers on two meetings held in November 2013 by three members of the Harrison County Board who also serve as trustees of a local drainage district.

Robert Smith, Walter Utman and Gaylord Pitt were discussing whether to rebuild a levee near Modale to hold back Missouri River floodwaters. A group of farmers were upset after the levee failed in 2011 and flooded their farm fields.

After the trustees were threatened with legal action by farmers, the trustees closed a portion of their meetings on Nov. 7 and Nov. 14 to discuss possible litigation.

Two of the farmers, James Olinger and Larry Meyer, sued in November 2013, claiming that the meetings violated Iowa’s open meetings laws.

A district court judge found that an open meetings violation occurred but also determined that the trustees went into a closed meeting on the advice of their secretary, who said their attorney recommended it and that they in good faith attempted to comply with the open meetings laws.

The judge imposed a fine on the drainage district but did not individually find the trustees liable based on their good-faith defense.

Appeals court justices found that the reason cited for the closed meetings — to discuss strategy with counsel in matters involving litigation — did not apply since the trustees’ attorney was not present.

“Here, two meetings were held, twice the trustees voted to go into closed session, and both times there was no statutory basis for closing the session,” the court ruled. “This was more than a ‘procedural irregularity,’ which resulted in the actual exclusion of persons from the meeting.”

The court said the trustees may not have known their actions violated the open meetings laws, but it found that ignorance is no defense.

The court fined each of the three members $200 for the two open meeting violations and concluded that they must individually pay attorney fees, which Jessica Zupp, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said will total nearly $25,000.

Zupp said the court’s ruling “puts some teeth back into the open meetings statute and reminds our elected leaders that they are accountable to the citizens and to the voters.”

The trustees may seek a rehearing before the full Iowa Court of Appeals and ask the Iowa Supreme Court to consider an appeal.

Here is the text of the Court of Appeals decision: HarrisonCounty.AppealsCourt