Repeat after me: Let the public know

The purpose was pretty simple when the Iowa Legislature wrote the state’s public meetings law many years ago: 

Government boards are required to announce their meetings at least one day in advance, and officials must tell the public what will be discussed and voted on. 

People are entitled to participate in our democracy by attending these meetings, so they can understand what the law calls “the basis and rationale” for government decisions.

If that was unclear to anyone, lawmakers added a second sentence to that declaration: “Ambiguity in the construction or application of this chapter should be resolved in favor of openness.”

Today, we are in the middle of the worst health crisis since the early 1900s. A dozen or more people die in Iowa each day from coronavirus, and hundreds more contract the disease. Government officials across Iowa are making decisions about the virus that affect all of us. 

But officials in Floyd County seem to have forgotten about truly informing the public before they meet. 

It is unfortunate that some members of the Iowa Public Information Board, which is supposed to referee possible violations of the law, seem not to grasp the significance of the Floyd County case.

Last week, the state board heard a citizen complaint about the advance notice the Floyd County Board of Supervisors provides for its meetings. While that might seem fairly mundane, the ruling the state board hands down next month could provide government officials across Iowa with a road map for evading an important requirement in the law.

For their past 30 meetings, the Floyd County supervisors have included an item on each tentative agenda that says, somewhat cryptically: “Review/Action coronavirus (COVID-19) issues as applicable.”

State and local government boards must inform the citizens what issues and topics will be discussed and acted upon at each meeting. But the Floyd County agendas do not meet this requirement.

The wording on Floyd County’s agendas is not sufficient to inform the public of what aspect of “coronavirus issues” will be discussed or acted upon. That omission deprives people of knowing whether a topic they care deeply about will come up, because a multitude of issues fall under the coronavirus umbrella. 

Subjects include setting up test sites, the trends in positive case numbers and deaths, and noteworthy outbreaks in care centers or large employers in a county. 

In Floyd County, there have been concerns about coronavirus cases among employees in courthouse offices, about public access to the building, cleaning and sanitation procedures county employees follow, and more recently, whether to require masks for employees and visitors in the courthouse. 

In some counties, topics for discussion have included food insecurity among unemployed and low-income residents. Counties also have discussed assistance for renters and small businesses and the county budget implications caused by the virus. In recent weeks, supervisors in all counties have dealt with issues of vaccine supplies and plans for inoculating residents.

The residents of Floyd County — and the 98 other counties in Iowa, too — deserve to be told what topics related to the disease are coming up for discussion or action at the next meeting of the county supervisors. 

Residents should not have to guess. A cryptic, catch-all agenda item like Floyd County’s is not adequate. People should be clearly informed so they can express their opinions to their officials.

I’m not the only person who believes this.

In 2002, Attorney General Tom Miller’s staff issued guidance to government officials on agendas. That guidance was direct: “Agendas must provide notice sufficient to inform the public of the specific actions to be taken and matters to be discussed at the meeting.”

The Iowa Public Information Board’s own guidance says agendas “must include more information than simply reciting such catch-all terms as … ‘old business;’ ‘new business;’ or by using the same agenda contents for meeting after meeting.”

Nevertheless, the staff of the state board recommended last week that the Floyd County citizen’s complaint be dismissed as “legally insufficient” for the case to proceed. 

The state board voted to delay its decision for a month. But one member said she does not believe the board has authority to accept the Floyd County case because county supervisors followed their attorney’s legal advice when the agenda was issued without mentioning specific coronavirus matters that would be taken up.

The public meetings law states, “Ignorance of the legal requirements of this chapter shall be no defense to an enforcement proceeding brought under this section.” 

That applies irrespective of whether the ignorance is that of the supervisors, their lawyer who gives bad advice, or members of the Iowa Public Information Board who forget the policy declaration that says any ambiguity in the public meetings law should be resolved in favor of openness.

Randy Evans is Executive Director if the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. Pen City Current is a member of the council and will be running Evan’s column weekly on Wednesdays.

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