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Iowa Ombudsman: Open Meetings Law Watchdog Violated Open Meetings Law

Dec 20, 2018

The Iowa Public Information Board is considered the watchdog for violations of the state's sunshine laws by local governments and other public bodies. But the Iowa Office of Ombudsman announced this week that the IPIB itself is guilty of violating the Iowa Open Meetings law.

The Office of Ombudsman said it opened an investigation into the IPIB after receiving a complaint in mid-2017 from a citizen about a possible open meetings violation. More than one year later, the office released its report: No Model of Transparency; An Investigation into Two Votes by the Iowa Public Information Board.

Violations

The report examines two meetings of the IPIB: July 20, 2017 & Aug. 25, 2017.

During each meeting, the board voted to enter “executive session” to discuss matters that the board felt should be kept private. Iowa law lists real estate purchases, personnel, and litigation as possible reasons to close a meeting to the public.

The report states that during both meetings, upon returning to “open session,” the IPIB voted to proceed with what was discussed in closed session. No details were provided to the public as to what was discussed in private.

The Ombudsman’s Office said that’s illegal. The office also questioned whether the IPIB provided a proper reason to close the meetings and enter executive session.

Autumn Steele

The Ombudsman’s Office interviewed several members of the IPIB as part of its investigation. Based on those interviews, the office determined the closed-door sessions regarded a case before the IPIB out of southeast Iowa.

Burlington Police Officer Jesse Hill shot and killed Autumn Steele outside of Steele’s home in January 2015. Steele’s family and the Burlington Hawkeye newspaper filed complaints with the IPIB after their open records requests for investigation documents were denied by the Burlington Police Department and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.

The IPIB members said the July 20, 2017 meeting focused on an attempt to settle the case while the August 25, 2017 meeting covered the rejection of a settlement offer.

“We did not understand why it would have been harmful for the public to know that IPIB was attempting to settle the case,” wrote the Ombudsman in the report.

Ombudsman's Findings

The Ombudsman's report states that the IPIB violated Iowa's open meetings law.

“It is obvious to us, based on the letter of the Open Meetings Law and input from the academic who wrote it, that IPIB violated Iowa Code sections 21.1 and 21.3 when its members failed to specify what they had voted on after emerging from closed sessions on July 20 and August 25, 2017,” wrote the Ombudsman in its report. “The decisions the board made on those dates were not easily accessible to the people as required by law. It is clear that both votes caused confusion among members of the press and public who attended. Any attempts by IPIB officials to justify their uninformative votes are tone-deaf and fly in the face of transparency.”

The Ombudsman used the report to take the IPIB to task for not releasing the recorded minutes of the closed meetings in question, despite the issuance of a subpoena in late 2017 for the closed session records.

“Our only aim in asking for IPIB’s closed-session recordings was to see whether the board had erred when it closed its meetings to the public. IPIB’s staff sometimes calls upon other government agencies to do the same.”

“IPIB’s handling of this matter has been anything but a model of transparency. When IPIB resists others’ efforts to full evaluate its actions, even despite assurances of confidentiality, it sends the signal to other government agencies that they may do the same. Its hypocrisy is contagious and damages the credibility of all government.”

The IPIB voted in Nov. 2017 to deny the Ombudsman's Office's request for the closed session information, citing attorney-client privilege and confidentiality. The IPIB said in a letter to the Ombudsman, dated Nov. 16, 2017, that it believes the office was exceeding its authority in trying to access the records.

Recommendations

The Ombudsman's report also included four recommendations for the IPIB:

  • Issue a statement at a public meeting to explain what it voted on during the two meetings in question
  • Issue a statement at a public meeting that expresses regret for its failure to explain the votes and acknowledge the votes violated the Open Meetings Law
  • Issue a statement at a public meeting acknowledging it improperly entered a closed session on August 25 because the reason was not included on an agenda 24 hours in advance
  • Reconsider the request to release the recordings and minutes from the closed sessions

Response

Prior to releasing the report to the public on Dec. 20, 2018, the Ombudsman's Office delivered a draft copy to the IPIB for review. The IPIB's response was included in the final report.

That response came in the form of a letter dated November 29. 2018. In it, the board said that it did nothing wrong when it voted at the conclusion of the two closed sessions in question. It also reenforced its right to attorney-client privilege in its reasoning for not releasing the closed session minutes and recordings throughout the process.

“The [IPIB] is troubled by a report harshly criticizing the [IPIB] for asserting attorney client privilege. The report seems to doubt that attorney-client privilege even applies in this circumstance.”

“In order to serve the public, the [IPIB] must feel free to discuss legal matters confidentially with legal counsel in a closed session as expressly authorized by law. Consequently, the [IPIB] must exercise its rights to wholly reject the findings, conclusions and recommendations contained in the report pursuant to Code secison 2C.15-2C.17."