Before our summer break, let’s talk open meetings laws

Opinion

Lee’s heading off to watch tennis for 12 days in Ohio, It’s easy for her to watch the ball go back and forth because typically she’s pretty good at shaking her head no. πŸ™‚

But with our usual summer break coming, I thought it might be a good chance to drop the mike so to speak.

I can say unequivocally that every public body I’ve covered in my time with Pen City Current has violated open meetings laws at one point or another. From very severe infractions like holding closed sessions without it being listed on the agenda, or adjourning a meeting and then having the council stick around to talk about a possible future equipment purchase – to the very minor such as having a locked door to an open meeting.

CHUCK VANDENBERG

I’ve cried foul on many occasions and I was right on most despite the Iowa Public Information Board dismissing my claims. Most of the time I just offer a reminder. I don’t want to be that “mean guy” as I’m apparently affectionately dubbed in Donnellson.

One complaint was dismissed on time jurisdiction. The IPIB board said I was late in filing my complaint despite my efforts to appeal the issue locally, which they declined to consider. We worked up an end-run on the IPIB and got the information we were looking for.

The other was filed against the city for going into closed session to discuss a real estate purchase. The only time you can do that is if public discussion would put the city in a disadvantageous position in the purchase. This particular sale had a single offer and was listed publicly. Where could the city have been compromised? To the contrary, open discussion might have prompted a healthier offer.

My complaint in that issue was dismissed because the IPIB deemed no damage had been done. My first question was how would they know?! The city admitted to not recording the closed session because of faulty equipment – it happens. PCC was given notes of the discussion taken from recollection only since no actual audio was recorded. How could the IPIB possibly say no damage was done when no one has real evidence of the discussion? Whoa.

But I think I may have witnessed another violation on Monday when the Fort Madison City Council held a closed session with the full council intact to discuss the appointment of new Police Chief Mark Rohloff. I believe there are other issues in question with interview panels conducted where the public wasn’t notified, but elected officials were welcomed to attend. That’s a pretty fine line, but state code does allow public bodies to invite people to viable closed sessions as needed.

The city also has precedent of holding those panel interviews in open session.

Iowa code 21.5(1)(i) reads governmental bodies can go into closed session: “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 (emphasis added) and that individual requests a closed session.”

Mark Rohloff was currently not employed at the time of his consideration for appointment, according to his application submitted to the city. And although he could still have requested a closed session, the city would have a hard time showing that holding that session in front of the public would have done “needless AND irreparable injury” to his reputation.

These laws are written to give every nod possible to openness in governmental dealings and you’re supposed to have to thread the needle in closing the public out. On several occasions now the city has danced around that issue.

I didn’t contest the closed session prior to being asked to leave chambers, which I have in the past, because it wasn’t publicly known what individual was being discussed. But a look through a glass window showed Rohloff addressing the council. When the discussion lands in front of the elected body, in whole or in part, great care must be taken to make sure the public’s interest is properly weighted and protected.

One can reasonably assume that because the city was once again looking outside the department for it’s next chief, that was part of the reason for all the secrecy in the proceedings.

However, City Code does give Varley authority to select the police chief, but it’s subject to council approval. Councilman Chris Greenwald thinks it shouldn’t even come to the council, and the City Manager should have total control in the hiring. It’s not an uncommon practice in municipal government for the City Manager to have that authority.

Looking at Rohloff’s credentials quickly shows that he is extremely qualified for the post and his 40-plus years of law enforcement that included stints as a police chief and a sheriff would stand up as well as anyone in the pool. Whether the meeting was held closed improperly or not has no reflection upon him.

But as newspaper staffing continues to dwindle and those charged with keeping an eye out find other careers, it’s imperative that our city, school, and county officials take a harder look at the intent, the language and even punctuation of these written codes to make sure they are not only protecting their responsibilities as public officials, but also the public’s right to know.

We’ll still be covering the news while Lee’s basking in the sun with her daughter in Mason, Ohio., only our e-edition will be on hiatus. The girls are both hyper-critical of fan etiquette, and get a little snarly with anyone (including this friendly neighborhood reporter) that has the audacity to even whisper during a point… or cat-calls Rafa Nadal as he changes shirts on court. VAMOS!!

But that’s Beside the Point.


About Chuck Vandenberg 5769 Articles
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