Tuesday meetings put closed meetings front and center

Opinion
CHUCK
VANDENBERG

After a couple of issues at meetings Tuesday night, I think a discussion is in order on closed and exempt public meetings.

The Fort Madison City Council almost went into what’s called an Exempt Session at Tuesday’s regular meeting. Exempt sessions are very specific in nature and can only be called to discuss very narrowly defined issues, typically surrounding staff negotiations.

An attorney from Dallas Lynch was called during the meeting when a vote came to approve the resolutions authorizing settlements with the city’s union staff, which includes library, police, and firefighters.

Initially, I was perplexed at the call because the city has an attorney sitting next to David Varley and no questions were in front of the council except the vote on the resolutions.

Just for a bit of background, when a resolution is introduced by Mayor Brad Randolph, protocol is to ask for a motion and second to approve that resolution. After two different councilman make the motion and a second, the mayor will then ask if there is any discussion before voting on the measure.

But this time, the attorney from Dallas Lynch was called prior to any motion being made, so there was no indication or inclination at that point to engage an attorney, who clearly had arranged to be on standby.

The attorney hinted that he wanted to go into an exempt session, which is allowed by Iowa Code 20.17(3). According to the code, “Negotiating sessions, strategy meetings of public employers, mediation, and the deliberative process of arbitrators shall be exempt from the provisions of Chapter 21.” Chapter 21 of the Iowa code outlines the parameters of closed session meetings.

From my perspective, which I broached with the mayor and council at the meeting, there was no indication of any closed or exempt sessions on the agenda. The city’s attorney was correct in saying that “Exempt” sessions do not require public notice because they are exempt from Iowa closed meetings laws. However, he still had to overcome the parameters of the exempt statute which, as listed above, is a negotiation session, a strategy session, mediation, or arbitration.

Pen City Current’s stance is that there was no arbitrator or mediator in the room so those two are thrown out. No one from the union’s negotiation team was at the meeting and no discussion or conversation was suggested to reopen the negotiations as tentative agreements had been reached. So that leaves a strategy session as the only reason for the exempt session. It was our contention that a strategy session at that point would have been a big leap.

After I appealed to the Mayor and Council, Councilman Bob Morawitz said he had some questions with the first resolution. My question is still why are we waiting until a council meeting to address questions that can be addressed with a phone call. Whatever conversation that call entails could be handled between Morawitz and the City Manager David Varley or the attorney, who said during the council meeting that he would be happy to address any questions with the council on a one-on-one basis. We have no problem with that, but we do have a problem with what was amounting to an ad hoc removal of public ears to a public discussion.

Councilman Chris Greenwald gets an ‘attaboy’ from Pen City Current for calling the question and forcing a vote without the exempt session.

We were also booted from a meeting at the school district office about an hour after the council meeting. I’m a huge proponent of transparency. The district had scheduled a closed session to review Superintendent Erin Slater’s performance. I’m a big fan. I think she’s doing a great job synchronizing the district with the state, is extremely visible, accessible, and knowledgeable. She’s helped facilitate a sense of unity and teamwork within the district. That’s no small feat considering what’s happened with collective bargaining.

However, it is my opinion that the district is unintentionally missing the spirit and grammar of Iowa code in conducting this evaluation in secret. The code the district agenda cited for Tuesday’s meeting is section 21.5 (1) (i) of the Iowa code, and reads as follows:

“A governmental body may hold a closed session only by affirmative public vote of either two-thirds of the members of the body or all of the members present at the meeting. A governmental body may hold a closed session only to the extent a closed session is necessary for any of the following reasons: (i) To evaluate the professional competency of an individual whose appointment, hiring, performance, or discharge is being considered when necessary to prevent needless and irreparable injury to that individual’s reputation and that individual requests a closed session.” (emphasis added)

The grammar here is pretty specific that this section of code is for a performance review when “necessary to prevent needless and irreparable injury to that individual’s reputation” and this does not appear to extend to a routine annual review. It’s our opinion that these “annual” reviews should be held in public as no other subsection of the Code addresses the issue. If it was for regular, annual, or semiannual reviews it would read as such. But the “needless and irreparable injury” language lays a specific foundation for the closed session.

The intent here isn’t to throw the superintendent nor the school board under the school bus, but to bring attention to the language of the code, which in our opinion, and this is an opinion piece, doesn’t justify an annual review behind closed doors. Google it. There’s a lot of discussion on this.

But then again, I think teacher/board contract negotiations should be done in open session, so I’m a bit wild.

My point here is this, we have to abide by closed and exempt meetings to the letter because those laws are built with a nod to openness of public entities.

We need, and are entitled, to see a whole lot of what you’re doing. Media needs to be respectful of what deserves to be discussed out of public view, and the public bodies have a responsibility to do as little of that as possible.

Speaking of public bodies, pay attention to the budget bill that’s going through the legislature right now. That bill’s carrying a current year budget cut of $32 million and change. That’s the year that ends June 30. Cuts are coming again, but that’s Beside the Point.

About Chuck Vandenberg 2362 Articles
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