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.
Wiggins said members identified the potential violation after the meeting and took steps to correct it, and that this exempts them from punishment because it signals they didn’t intentionally or knowingly close the meeting.
“Such actions demonstrate a desire to comply with the requirements of (the act), not to sidestep the statute,” he wrote.
Postville attorney Anne Loomis said she was disappointed the court ruled commission members did not knowingly violate the law, noting that they are state and local elected officials who are familiar with its requirements.
“Each and every one of them should know what the Iowa open meetings law would require and that a secret vote is not permissible,” she said.
Wiggins said the court would leave “for another day” a ruling on whether the general immunity given to volunteers specifically does not apply to open meetings act violators. The city did not raise that argument early enough in the case for the court to consider it, he said.
“The court properly applied the law and also carefully examined the arguments that the plaintiffs both made and didn’t make,” commission attorney Thomas Wolle said. “The sunshine laws are very important and the court has made that clear. In this particular case, the plaintiffs didn’t show that the members could be held liable because of (the statute), which provides immunity to volunteers.”
The court reinstated another part of the lawsuit, which alleges the commission violated the law by not giving adequate notice for its meetings dating back to 1999. Wiggins wrote that a trial was necessary to determine whether the hallway bulletin board where meeting notices were posted was accessible enough to the public to satisfy the law’s notice requirements.
The court also ruled that commissions that serve multiple counties only have to publish information about their operations in a single newspaper in the jurisdiction, not in multiple newspapers to reach all taxpayers they represent.