John Q. Public is told he can’t attend a local meeting because he’s not a resident of that community. Two city council members text each other during a meeting, making fun of those making public comments. A board of supervisors regularly go out for lunch together and—even though they say they don’t talk about business—it sure looks suspicious.
These are just a few of the transparency “hall of shame” examples given by Jeff Schott of the University of Iowa’s Institute for Public Affairs to about 15 city council members, city board and commission members, staff and members of the public at a training Monday night at the Dyersville Social Center.
In case you missed it, here’s a few important points to consider regarding government transparency. All of us can use these guidelines to insure that we have access to the decision-making process. Consider yourself forewarned (and forearmed)!
• The meetings of committees that give recommendations must be open to the public. We’ve seen some groups bend over backward to avoid “making recommendations” and thus avoid the law. Be real. Don’t meet behind closed doors.
• Social gatherings of elected officials aren’t “meetings”—but don’t you dare talk about government business. If you do, you’re acting illegally. Regardless, people won’t assume you’re immune from temptation. Don’t leave any room for doubt.
• An agenda must give the public enough information to reasonably judge what will be discussed. And you can’t change the agenda unless it’s an actual emergency.
• Electronic communication has opened new cans of worms, but openness is still the guiding principal: if you’re an official talking or writing about business with other officials, it’s a meeting. The Iowa Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether or not emails sent amongst board members qualify as a meeting, but the question has been tested in many other states and, “in almost every case, the courts have ruled that it would be a meeting,” said Schott.
Staff can send emails to a group of elected officials, and while such communication is a public record, it’s not a meeting—but asking for a response or starting a conversation among those officials could make the conversation a violation of the law.
• Closed meetings are allowed for a few reasons, most often litigation (which must be imminent if not already occurring) and personnel evaluation, hiring or firing, but only at the request of the employee. Despite the temptation, don’t talk about anything else in a closed session—the law requires both taping and note-taking during a closed meeting.
• Anybody has the right to inspect public records during normal business hours without charge, or to get copies for a reasonable cost. A recent change in the law made “drafts” not subject to the open records law, but they become public as soon as they’re given to a decision-making body.
• Officials and employees cannot accept gifts of more than $3 a day from those seeking to do business with the government, those engaged in activities regulated by the governing body or those who could be financially affected in ways greater than the general public. No more fancy dinners or presents, please.
Schott also spoke about the importance of doing not only what is legal but also what is right. To his notes, we’d add a few words of our own:
• A so-called “walking quorum,” though not actually illegal, circumvents the spirit of the law. A “walking quorum” means that one person asks their fellow board members, one by one, for their opinion, often to determine a consensus before the matter comes to a public vote.
Schott admitted that he had often used such a strategy when he was a city administrator in Marion. Walking quorums are especially common in discussing economic development. That doesn’t make such practice right.
Sunshine laws are meant to insure that decision-making is done in the public eye, not behind closed doors. Iowa officials should follow the spirit as well as the letter of the law. Do your business in public.
Our Opinion is the consensus of the editorial board.