Local governments should carry different spirit to public input – Beside the Point

One of the rights and responsibilities of the general public is to challenge the philosophies, protocols, and processes of elected officials.

In 20 years around journalism one of the things that surprises me is how little people really engage in being informed. In a social media driven world, it’s even worse because people become, and I just heard this phrase this week – keyboard cowboys – and think that suffices in challenging the status quo.

However, occasionally and not often, people will come in person and give a full-throated challenge to a county board, school board, or city council.

Those people who come to address issues that may not be on the council’s or board’s agenda, are thrown into an arena called “public input” or in the case of the Fort Madison City Council, “Visitor and Appearance Requests”.

These people give their name and address for the public record and then are given either a predetermined or suggested time to speak to the elected officials. Fort Madison School Board literally puts a timer in about 120 point type on a video display indicating you have three minutes to speak.

Okay. First of all, that’s bunk and has a tremendous chilling effect on what people are trying to communicate to the board, but we can at least get behind some sort of limit on the discussion to keep things moving.

But here’s where we have had a problem for about five years and it’s time to talk about it.

All three public boards that we regularly cover, Fort Madison Community School District, Fort Madison City Council, and Lee County Board of Supervisors are represented by Lynch-Dallas out of Cedar Rapids.

Fort Madison City Council and the Fort Madison School Board both decline to comment on issues brought up by residents on advice of their attorney citing open meetings laws. The City Council goes so far as to include language on each agenda that says “Visitor and Appearance Requests” are not a time to discuss issues with the council.

City Council agendas include the following posted statement: “PLEASE NOTE: This is not an opportunity to discuss issues with Council or to get information. In accordance with Open Meetings law, Council cannot take action on any complaint or suggestion or respond to any allegations.”

Where we have an issue is the language that says it’s not an opportunity to discuss issues with Council or to get information.

Well, what is it for then? What can only be described as a dump-and-go. The council will let you tell them what you’re upset about and possibly refer it to city staff for consideration. Mayor Matt Mohrfeld is very good about telling people in most cases that city staff will look at the issue. But not always. Sometimes, more often than not, people looking for, at a minimum, direction from the city council get nothing but a thank you for coming.

A brief check with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council tells us that a lot of local governments operate under this assumption that they cannot discuss anything brought up during public comments sections per Iowa’s open meetings laws.

We disagree, and we challenged the language this week to Fort Madison’s City Attorney Pat O’Connell of Lynch Dallas.

O’Connell responded saying Iowa Code Chapter 21.4 defines a public meeting as “a gathering in person or by electronic means, formal or informal, of a majority of the members of a governmental body where there is deliberation or action upon any matter within the scope of the governmental body’s policy-making duties.”

O’Connell went on to write that when the Council is confronted with a policy matter in the public comment section which is not part of the published agenda (under Iowa Code 21.4, the agenda must be published at least 24 hours in advance of the scheduled public meeting), it can neither take action, nor deliberate on the matter. 

He also cited a recent Iowa Supreme Court ruling that indicated public bodies are not allowed to deliberate on issues that aren’t on posted agendas.

We would disagree directly with the application of the word “deliberate”. By Webster’s definition, to deliberate means “A discussion and consideration by a group of persons (such as a jury or legislature) of the reasons for and against a measure.”

It seems a stretch to say that an informal discussion about the cost of pet tags, or snow removal, parking restrictions, ATV usage or other issues would always reach the sniff test of a deliberation. There are public bodies that engage in discussions with residents in a spirit that was intended with Iowa’s sunshine laws.

There are certain protections provided to conversations with elected officials and those are very specifically outlined and typically pertain to property negotiations and personnel issues. The mayor could, we believe, gavel the conversation closed and advise the party addressing the council that the topic has now moved to a place of confidentiality and will be referred to city staff for consideration.

But drawing a fine line that no conversation with city residents will take place on issues brought before the council under ‘public input’ has a tremendous chilling effect on the inclinations of the public to have grievances addressed by an elected body.

We’ve seen and heard the same comments from other bodies, not just Fort Madison City Council, but the City Council is the only elected body to actually put the language on each agenda.

We approached Mayor Matt Mohrfeld about the language and he indicated he’s not willing at this time to waiver from the policy in place. He allowed that our observations on the language were somewhat accurate, but the issue wasn’t that simple.

We agree it’s not simple. It’s extremely complex. But Iowa’s sunshine laws, encapsulated in Chapters 21 and 22 of Iowa Code, explicitly spell out that that any gray areas in the law should be decided on the side of openness.

And although we don’t feel at this point, a formal complaint is warranted, we would strongly encourage all local boards to take another look at how residents are being treated when they saddle up and bring an issue to elected officials for consideration. There is a City Hall and there are county departments and there are school officials and a quick course of action should be to follow that chain of command when you have concerns about operations.

However, if it becomes an option or necessity to bring your issue to the council or board, you should get more than a nod and be sent on your way. Public debate is part of being an elected official. You aren’t prepared for everything, no one is. But isn’t the open, informal conversation that is inherent in public input sessions part and parcel to the whole elected official gig?

We believe an informal conversation that is part of the posted agenda, under a public input item, doesn’t meet the threshold of a deliberation where reasons for or against a measure are being considered. In most cases a “measure” isn’t even at issue. A jury deliberates facts to determine innocence or guilt within an extremely finite set of rules put forth by a judge before the deliberation takes place. Moreover, those deliberations take place out of the purview of the public.

To carry the jury deliberation example just a bit further, the discussion and information gathering phase that takes place before deliberations – is predominantly done in an open hearing.

We’ve all been watching with great excitement as Fort Madison’s boys basketball team ascended to the top spot in Class 3A. It’s a great team accomplishment and a nice reflection on the community. One member of that team, Dayton Davis, just passed 1,000 points for his high school career. We congratulate the Bloodhounds on what appears to be the first time ever holding the No. 1 spot in the state, and we congratulate Dayton Davis on his 1,000 point – But that’s Beside the Point.

Chuck Vandenberg is the editor and co-owner of Pen City Current and can be reached at charles.v@pencitycurrent.com.

1 thought on “Local governments should carry different spirit to public input – Beside the Point

  1. Excellent analysis of the “public forum” restrictions in your community, Chuck. The Iowa Public Information Board responds during its meetings to public comments and questions. That is a good indication of what the public meetings law *does* allow.

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