IOWA CITY — Volunteers who serve on governmental bodies cannot be held personally liable for unintentional violations of the Iowa Open Meetings Act, at least for now, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday.
In an important open meetings case, the court ruled that volunteers cannot be ordered to pay damages for holding closed meetings unless they commit “intentional misconduct or a knowing violation” of the act, which promotes transparency in government. However, the court signaled that it would be open to considering a future legal argument about the issue that wasn’t properly raised in the case.
The ruling declined the city of Postville’s request to sanction members of a regional planning commission in northeastern Iowa who admitted to violating the open meetings law by holding a secret vote to purchase property in 2010.
The open meetings law says violators can face fines of up to $500 for each violation. But Justice David Wiggins said that law was rebuffed by another that broadly protects citizens who volunteer to serve on government bodies from legal liability, “except for acts or omissions which involve intentional misconduct or knowing violation of the law” or actions in which they receive improper benefits.
The case involves the Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission, which has 24 members and serves five counties in far northeastern Iowa. The commission voted in 2010 in a secret ballot to purchase property to move some of its programs to Decorah, which had all previously been located in Postville.
After one member questioned whether the secret ballot was illegal, the commission contacted the state ombudsman for advice and decided to send out new written ballots asking members to reaffirm their votes by mail. Although some changed their minds, the commission still voted to buy the property.
The city of Postville and the editor of the local newspaper filed a lawsuit alleging that open meetings violations had occurred. The commission admitted to two violations involving the secret ballot and the mail-in ballot, and the lawsuit sought $500 fines against each individual member for each.