In June, the Iowa Supreme Court decided a case involving The Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission. The Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission is generally a volunteer-run group that provides resources to communities to support infrastructure projects that help build stronger local communities. To provide a few examples, they assist with grants, training programs, and employment services. They specifically serve the Northeastern Iowa counties of Allamakee, Clayton, Fayette, Howard, and Winneshiek. You can find out more about this group by visiting their website at http://uerpc.org/.
The lawsuit involved alleged violations of the Iowa Open Meetings Act (IOMA). An individual citizen and the City of Postville, Iowa, both brought suit against The Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission. The plaintiffs accused the Commission of having a secret vote, failure to provide sufficient public notice, and failure to publish salaries in a newspaper that is of “general circulation.”
In 2009, The Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission decided to open another office. They were considering two locations. One was an expansion of their Postville office while the other option was to create a new office in Decorah. They held a vote as to which option would be the better choice for their use of funds. The commission members voted through secret ballot, and the Decorah location won the placement. However, hours after the vote, a few commission members expressed concern that they may be violating the IOMA because of the secret vote. IOMA requires that public votes have names attached as a means to increase accountability for public officials. They contacted the State Ombudsman’s Office to inquire as to how they should go about fixing their violation. As suggested, they re-casted their votes with their names attached, and, while the votes changed somewhat, the Decorah office location still won the vote by the same number of votes.
The City of Postville and an individual citizen (“the City”) sued the Commission and the individuals on the Commission based on this voting procedure. Likely, the City was disappointed they chose the Decorah location instead of expanding their Postville location. Any violation of IOMA may require the Court to void any action taken under IOMA, which could include voiding the vote to establish an office in Decorah. However, that becomes somewhat confusing because while this case was proceeding through court, the Commission built and staffed their Decorah location. In addition, the suit may force government councils to take a hard look at their compliance with IOMA.
What the suit did not originally consider is that the state of Iowa includes a provision that allows volunteers working on councils of governments to be immune from personal liability. Therefore, where a violation of the IOMA would have allowed a fine, the volunteers would be immune from the fine. The Commission admitted that using the secret ballot violated IOMA, but they claimed immunity because they were volunteers. The Supreme Court of Iowa agreed with their reasoning and did not impose a fine. There is also a federal version of the volunteer immunity, but since the state version applied, the Court did not address the federal statute.
Next, the City argued that the required notification of public meetings was not sufficient. IOMA requires public notice of meetings. The notice is required to be “reasonable,” but that is really the only requirement IOMA provides. The Commission posted announcements of its meetings on a bulletin board in the hallway of their Postville office five days before each meeting. The bulletin board was near the public entrance, but the public could not see it from the main access door. The public would need to go down another hallway in order to see the notice. The Court decided that there was a dispute as to whether this was sufficient public notice, so they remanded the issue back down to the lower court to determine.
Finally, the City argued that the Commission did not publish salaries as required in a newspaper of general circulation. Their main argument rested on the fact that although the newspaper the Commission used covered their five-county area, the Oelwein Daily Register, the newspaper did not have subscribers in each of the five counties. The Court determined that they did not need to use two newspapers, and since there was not a newspaper available that covered all five counties, the Commission chose the best option available. Therefore, there was no violation.
The case will continue at the district court level to determine whether the public notice was sufficient. If it was not, and IOMA applies, then the vote could still be voided. It will be interesting to see how the Commission will deal with that development should the district court determine that the notice requirement was not met. If you have questions about compliance with IOMA, contact McCarthy, Callas & Feeney and we will be happy to discuss your legal questions. Call 309-788-2800 today.