W.D.M. skirts meetings law with phone calls

By Kim Norvell
Des Moines Register

West Des Moines’ city manager circumvented the “intent of the open meetings law” when he called City Council members to gauge where they stand on a controversial Statehouse bill that would dismantle water utility boards, according to the director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

City Manager Tom Hadden said he “canvassed” council members one on one before directing the city’s lobbyist to register in support of House File 484, which would directly affect West Des Moines Water Works.

Hadden said the phone calls met Iowa’s open meetings requirement because there was no formal vote on an action item.

But Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said the city manager’s telephone poll is “a clear-cut case” of trying to get around the state law.

“The government of West Des Moines belongs to the citizens of West Des Moines,” he said. “It doesn’t belong to the city manager and the City Council members, and they have a duty to let the citizens of West Des Moines in on the process.”

Hadden said his canvass is a normal practice during the Legislative session because bills can be introduced and passed quickly.

“Things come so quick that a lot of time there’s no time for formal council action,” he said. “It’s a moving target. As the legislation moves forward and things change, we could take it to neutral or opposed before it’s all said and done.”

Iowa’s open meetings law requires cities to provide 24 hours’ notice before meeting in a public session. The bill was introduced Feb. 15 and amendments were approved Feb. 28 after legislators received input from area city managers and mayors. The city’s lobbyist registered in support of the bill March 2. The bill has since passed out of committee and is eligible for floor debate.

Councilman Kevin Trevillyan said he disagrees with phone polling. It strips the opportunity to discuss issues with other council members — a practice that could potentially change others’ minds, he said.

Trevillyan, who works as an engineering technician for West Des Moines Water Works, said decisions on how to direct lobbyists to register should be debated in public.

“(Without meeting in public) you can’t have open discussion. You can’t lay everything on the table,” Trevillyan said. “In my mind, consensus is the same thing as a vote.”

If the bill were to become law, Trevillyan would become and city employee and would no longer be able to serve on the City Council. He said the city manager did not call him directly about the issue. He says he’s against the bill because it would not be good for the citizens of West Des Moines.

Two complaints were filed with the Iowa Public Information Board in recent weeks alleging Des Moines violated the open meetings law when it met to discuss pending legislation. Des Moines registered support for HF 484 after that meeting.
Susan Huppert, vice chair of the Des Moines Water Works Board of Trustees, said a one-sentence agenda that simply read “2017 Legislative Issues” was a “deliberate attempt to not allow input from the public” on the issue.

The Iowa Public Information Board has not received any complaints on West Des Moines’ action.

Evans said he’s concerned that the city manager’s poll will set a precedent. He said it may be easier for the city to take this approach, but Iowa’s open records law recognizes there are emergencies and allows for telephonic meetings if the public can listen in.

“If the city manager can poll on whether to register for or against a piece of legislation, it would appear that the city manager could do the same thing for any controversial topic that is coming before the city council,” Evans said.