Written for Iowa newspaper publishers/editors and others interested in interpreting the Iowa Supreme Court decision in the Warren Co. case. Published in the Iowa Newspaper Association’s weekly newsletter March 23, 2016.
INA amicus in case before the Iowa Supreme Court wins the day
The Iowa Supreme Court issued its decision Friday in a case brought against Warren County (IA) and its Board of Supervisors by six former Warren County employees. The case involved decisions made by the Board of Supervisors behind closed doors with a minority of supervisors present along with the county administrator.
Attorney Ryan Koopmans, Nyemaster Goode, in his amicus brief on behalf of the Iowa Newspaper Association and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, argued that the County Administrator was serving as an agent of the board, and therefore, meetings were held in violation of the open meetings law.
In its decision, the Court reversed the lo court’s decision, which was in favor of the county, and remanded the case back to the district court with directions. In the majority opinion, Justice Wiggins wrote that “On appeal, we conclude the definition of meeting in section 21.2(2) [Iowa Code] extends to all in-person gatherings at which there is deliberation upon any matter within the scope of the policy-making duties of a governmental body by a majority of its members, including in-person gatherings attended by a majority of the members by virtue of an agent or a proxy.”
The case, tried in district court in July, dealt with a reorganization of county government in which discussions between individual supervisors and the county administrator resulted in negotiation of the terms of the reorganization behind closed doors.
On March 4, 2014, the Warren County Board of Supervisors held a public meeting and unanimously approved a budget for the upcoming year. The approved budget included all county employees’ current salaries and the raise each would receive during fiscal year 2015.
On March 25 and 26, the county administrator, one of the supervisors and the county attorney terminated 12 county employees stating in a letter to each employee that “Warren County is implementing a restructuring of job responsibilities and duties in several departments effective March 26, 2014. Your position is being recommended for elimination. In lieu of a layoff, we are offering a severance package that must be approved by the Board of Supervisors.”
Over a period of time in February and March, prior to the terminations, the county administrator met individually with each supervisor so each could voice his thoughts and concerns on various topics. She then reported those thoughts and concerns to the other supervisors. It was through this process that the board decided which positions to eliminate. Working with the county attorney, the county administrator drafted letters of termination and severance agreements, showed them to each individual supervisor and confirmed with each that he would approve the terms outlined in the agreements. All this was done out of public view.
On April 18, two days after six employees filed suit against the board, the county and the individual supervisors, the board met in open session and, without discussion, unanimously passed two resolutions; one approving a recommendation to reorganize county government and reduce the work force and another to approve severance agreements for the 12 terminated employees. The board did not allow any public comment.
The case was tried in district court and the presiding judge declined to award relief to the employees finding that “the employees failed to prove a preponderance of the evidence that a majority of the board deliberated about the reorganization in violation of the open meetings law.”
When hearing this case, the Supreme Court addressed “whether the district court correctly interpreted section 21.2(2) when it concluded the gatherings attended by the individual supervisors and the county administrator did not constitute gatherings of a majority of the members of the board.”
In the amicus brief filed by the INA and IFOIC, Koopmans contended that the county administrator acted as each supervisor’s agent by conveying his thoughts and opinions to the other supervisors and, by doing so, each gathering between the administrator and an individual supervisor was the legal equivalent of a gathering of two or three supervisors.
In its effort to determine legislative intent, the Court cited several prior opinions in which it said that “a statute is ambiguous if reasonable persons can disagree on its meaning,” and “when a literal interpretation of a statute results in absurd consequences that undermine the clear purpose of the statute, an ambiguity arises.”
Chapter 21 clearly states that “Ambiguity in the construction or application of this chapter should be resolved in favor of openness.” In its opinion, the district court said that it could “construe the term gathering (as used in the open meetings law) narrowly to conclude the open meetings requirements apply only to face-to-face deliberations during which a majority of the members of a governmental body are personally physically present. However, such a narrow construction of the term would clearly be at odds with the intended scope and purpose of our open meetings law.”
The Supreme Court said it has “long recognized the general principle that members of a public board may authorize performance of ministerial or administrative functions but cannot delegate matters of judgment and discretion. Our conclusion that public bodies cannot use agents to deliberate matters of public policy without triggering the open meetings law is consistent with this principle.”
In its conclusion, the Court wrote, “Because the district court incorrectly interpreted section 21.2(2) in applying the open meetings law, we reverse its judgement and remand the case.
On remand, the district court should make the necessary factual findings and apply the proper interpretation of the statute in a manner consistent with this opinion.”