Monday, December 11, 2006
Time to Open the Books
Just got this from the State Ombudsman's office...
State of Iowa
Date: December 11, 2006
Re: Investigation into Randolph Public Library’s Closed Session Violations
A public library board in southwest Iowa violated the state Open Meetings Law several times last winter, according to a report released Friday by State Ombudsman Bill Angrick.
The Ombudsman’s report, issued to the Randolph Library Board (Board), includes seven recommendations designed to stop the Board from further violations of the Open Meetings Law. The Ombudsman gave the Board an opportunity to comment on the report and recommendations, as required by law, but the Board chose not to respond.
The investigation resulted from a complaint that the Board did not have a quorum at its December 2005 meeting, when it fired a library employee. The Board was involved in legal negotiations with a company, and Board members at the meeting discussed those negotiations. Before that discussion, the Board asked an assistant librarian to leave the meeting, because she was a partner in the company. The Board did this at the recommendation of the city attorney.
The Ombudsman concluded that the Board effectively went into a closed session without following the procedures required under Iowa Code section 21.5, and also improperly discussed terminating the assistant librarian. The Board contended it never went into a closed session. Assuming the Board remained in an open meeting, the Ombudsman also concluded that the Board violated the Open Meetings Law by requesting the assistant librarian to leave the meeting.
During the investigation, the Ombudsman became aware of additional violations of closed session and meeting notices, and found the Board had contradictory rules for proxy voting and the required number of Board members. The Ombudsman concluded that the Board:
· Acted contrary to law when it subsequently provided the assistant librarian with a partial agenda for a meeting that was later cancelled.
· Acted contrary to law with its practice of allowing a member to vote on a matter before and outside the official meeting.
· Had six members, but it was unknown how this came to be, and there was no written policy for resolving tie votes.
· Required that only three of its six members be present at a meeting to call quorum, contrary to state law, which requires a majority of members be present in order to establish a quorum.
During the investigation, the Board reduced the number of members to five, and adopted a policy requiring that three members be present at a meeting before it calls a quorum, actions that the Ombudsman finds are in accordance with Iowa law.
Also during the investigation, the Board justified some of its actions by saying it had relied on the city attorney’s advice. In response, the Ombudsman’s report said a government body has an obligation to know the requirements of the Open Meetings Law, and while individual public officials who rely on formal legal advice may be shielded from liability for monetary damage, the governmental body can still be held liable for court costs and attorney fees.
The Ombudsman’s report concludes with the following recommendations to the Board:
1. The Board should not exclude any members of the public from its open meetings. If the Board wants to discuss a matter privately, it should determine if it can go into a closed session under Iowa Code section 21.5 and follow that procedure.
2. If the Board wants to go into a closed session, it should do so only under one or more of the eleven enumerated reasons stated in Iowa Code section 21.5, and only after it has followed the required procedures. In addition, the Board should limit the discussion to those matters for which it went into the closed session.
3. The Board should provide the complete agenda to all members of the public. Agendas must be posted in a prominent place that is easily accessible to the public. Agendas should contain sufficient information to inform the public the actions to be taken and matter to be discussed at the meeting.
4. Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, states proxy voting “is not permitted in ordinary deliberative bodies” and generally discourages its use. The Ombudsman believes it also contravenes the intent of Iowa’s open meetings law for governmental decisions, and the basis and rationale for those decisions, be easily accessible to the people. Because it is highly questionable whether proxy voting is legally permissible to be used by Iowa governmental bodies, the Ombudsman recommends against its usage.
5. The Board should cease the practice of allowing a member to declare his or her own vote to the President prior to and outside the meeting at which the matter will be decided. The Ombudsman believes such action violates the intent and the implicit requirement of the open meetings law for members to deliberate and vote at the appointed meeting.
6. If the Board conducts an electronic meeting, it should ensure the public can hear the absent member through a speaker phone or other means. The minutes must state why a meeting in person is impossible or impracticable. The Ombudsman recommends the Board incorporate written rules on how and when electronic meetings will be conducted, and ensure they are in compliance with Iowa Code section 21.8.
7. The Board should ensure all its members are knowledgeable about the Iowa Open Meetings Law and Iowa Open Records Law, Chapters 21 and 22 of the Iowa Code, respectively. Relying solely on the legal council’s advice will not shield the government body from liability if the body fails to follow these laws.
Copies of the report are available on request, or from the Ombudsman’s website at www.legis.state.ia.us/ombudsman.
The Office of Citizens’ Aide/Ombudsman investigates complaints about most agencies of state and local governments in Iowa. It may also help people effectively raise their concerns to government agencies or understand why an action was taken.
In addition to the website, Iowans can contact the office toll-free at 1-888-426-6283 [or in the Des Moines area at (515) 281-3592]. The office has a TTY which can be reached using the toll-free number or at (515) 242-5065. The fax number is (515) 242-6007. The address is Ola Babcock Miller Building, 1112 East Grand Avenue, Des Moines, Iowa 50319.
Posted by Dave Price at 7:18 PM