The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa –
Second-guessing gadflies, prying media and an old-fashioned Midwestern desire to be efficient and civil can tempt government officials to undermine open meetings and open records laws.
Last month in West Branch, a discussion about a sidewalk grant degenerated into harsh words between the city council and members of the audience.
The meeting was posted on YouTube, which led City Administrator Matt Mucker to devise a set of rules, including one that would have required the public to secure mayoral permission to record meetings – something that would have violated the state’s open meetings law.
When that was pointed out, Mucker indicated he would rewrite the rule to exempt the media. But Gregory Norfleet, editor of the West Branch Times, quickly noted the law was not written for the media’s benefit.
“It’s for everybody,” he said.
The issue was resolved amicably, and Norfleet gave Mucker high marks for making certain the state law is followed.
Mark Tomb, director of membership for the Iowa League of Cities, said that’s the way it should be.
Tomb acknowledged a smattering of high-profile incidents involving open meetings or open records problems with Iowa governing bodies, but was unaware of flagrant abuse.
As in the West Branch case, he said when the law is pointed out to officials, compliance rarely is a problem.
His role, he said, is to help local officials avoid problems in the first place.
In the January issue of CityScape, the league’s monthly publication, Tomb wrote “Council Meetings 101,” which highlighted councils’ legal responsibilities.
“It is important to remember that nearly anyone can bring an action against the city for violating the Iowa Open Meetings Law,” he wrote. “Each member who participated in the violation may be assessed damages of not more than $500 or not less than $100. These penalties increase to no more than $2,500 or no less than $1,000 when the member knowingly participated in the violation.
“Ignorance of the law is not a defense,” he warned.
In August, the league joined the Iowa Newspaper Association, the Iowa Broadcasters Association and the Iowa Attorney General’s Office in webinars to offer additional training and tips.
Even though the law states whenever questions arise, the authors intended them to be resolved on the side of openness and transparency, problems still surface.
Last year, the Dubuque County Library Board voted 6-1 during an open meeting to hire a new director to replace one who had been fired, but chose to identify him only by his first name, Andrew.
Library board President Richard A. Barker said he was honoring the applicant’s request to notify his employer before accepting the job. The local newspaper, the Telegraph-Herald, objected, insisting failing to disclose the last name meant a candidate was not identified, and the vote was not valid.
Barker cited a section of code that permits closed sessions for discussion about personnel. The newspaper said it did not apply to votes.
Through some sleuthing, the newspaper called Andrew Hoppman, director of the Lied Public Library in Clarinda and a former Dubuque resident. He acknowledged seeking the job.
A row ensued, and feelings were bruised. When Hoppman eventually turned down the job, board president Barker complained he “was driven away by the Telegraph-Herald.”
Dawn Hayslett of Burlington ultimately was offered the job and took it.
Barker said the newspaper chose to make the matter personal and blew it out of proportion. After the county attorney addressed the paper’s objections, he said the matter went away.
Chris Mudge, who handles legal questions for the Iowa Newspaper Association, said it’s not unusual for government entities to interpret open meetings and open records laws broadly.
“Sometimes local governments, in an effort to make things easier for them, can overreach,” she said.
Resolving disputes in court can be expensive and time consuming, and news organizations place a premium on both. By the time a decision is rendered, the event in question no longer may be relevant.
As a remedy, the newspaper association is supporting legislation that would arbitrate disputes between governments and the public, including media. A public information board would interpret questions about open meetings and open records laws and serve as the final arbiter.
Mudge said the board could resolve disputes quickly, efficiently and authoritatively.
Not all interactions with government officials are confrontational.
In Mount Pleasant, a recent request for the city administrator’s travel expenses was fulfilled within minutes.
“This is the public’s business,” City Administrator Brent Schleisman said. “I wish more people did this.”