Iowa Open Meetings Law
Which boards are subject to the open meetings law?
- School boards
- Area education agency boards
- Community college boards of trustees
- State Board of Education.
Which board advisory committees are covered?
- Advisory committees created by statute
- Advisory ccommittees either appointed or approved by the board.
What is a meeting?
A gathering in person or by electronic means:
- formally or informally
- of a majority of members of a board, including certain advisory committees
- where deliberation or action upon any matter within the scope of the board’s policy-making duties takes place.
What is not a meeting?
A gathering of members of a board:
- formally or informally
- of a majority of members of a board, including certain advisory committees
- for purely ministerial or social purposes, and
- where there is no discussion of policy or intent to avoid the purposes of the open meetings law.
What kinds of meetings are exempt?
- Termination hearings of licensed employees
- Board hearings on termination of an administrator’s contract
- Collective bargaining or strategy sessions
- Strategy sessions regarding non-union employees.
A Simple Guide to Iowa's Open Meetings Law
Iowa Code, Chapter 21
Iowa's open meetings law "seeks to assure, through a requirement of open meetings of governmental bodies, that the basis and rationale of governmental decisions, as well as those decisions themselves, are easily accessible to the people." All actions and discussions at meetings of governmental bodies, whether formal or informal, including work sessions, must be conducted in open session unless exceptions or exemptions are specifically provided by law. "Open session" means a meeting to which all members of the public have access.
The definition of "governmental bodies" includes school boards and any joint board established with other school districts, cities, counties or other units of government. Advisory committees created by statute are subject to the open meetings law whether or not they make recommendations on public policy issues. Advisory committees that are board-created are subject to the open meetings law if they develop and make recommendations on public policy issues. Since it is unlikely that a board would appoint or create an advisory committee that doesn’t make recommendations on public policy issues, it is safe to say that all board-created or board-appointed advisory committees are subject to the open meetings law. Any ambiguity should be resolved in favor of openness.
"Meeting" means a gathering in person or by electronic means, formal or informal, of a majority of the members of a governmental body where there is deliberation or action upon any matter within the scope of the governmental body’s policy-making duties. Gatherings for purely social purposes or purely ministerial duties (mandatory acts requiring no discretion or judgment) when there is no discussion of policy, are exempt from the open meetings law (21.2).
A majority of the board of directors of any school corporation constitutes a quorum for the transaction of business, but a lesser number may adjourn from time to time (279.4).
Rules of Conduct
Each meeting shall be held at a place reasonably accessible to the public, and at a time reasonably convenient to the public, unless for good cause such a place or time is impossible or impractical, which good cause shall be stated in the minutes (21.5).
The public may use cameras or recording devices at any open session (21.7).
A governmental body may make and enforce reasonable rules for the conduct of its meetings to assure those meetings are orderly and free from interference or interruption by spectators (21.7).
Meeting Time and Place
With the exception of the organizational meeting and the annual meeting which are governed by statute, the school board has the authority to schedule its regular meetings. In scheduling meetings, it is important to remember that the primary reason a board meets is to dispose of school district business. A board can meet too many times as well as too few. If a board meets every week, it is probably doing so because the meetings are inefficient and lack productivity, or it has entered into the administration of the district and has little confidence in its chief executive officer.
Most school boards meet at least once a month on a date, time and location agreed upon by the members. When the schedule of regular meetings has become a matter of record the law assumes that all members have received adequate notice and no further legal notification to members is necessary.
The time of day and location of the regular meetings should be consistent from month to month. Most school board meetings are held in the evening but some meet in the morning or afternoon. The meeting area should provide comfortable seating, ample work space and ease of access to needed data for the board members, board secretary and superintendent. It should also provide seating to accommodate the media and public as well as ease of access to the meeting site.
Special meetings may be called if action on an item cannot wait until the next regular board meeting, or to devote an entire meeting to a special topic. Special meetings may be determined by the board or called by the president, or by the secretary upon the written request of a majority of the members of the board. Notice specifying the time and place must be delivered to each person or sent by registered letter, although attendance is considered a waiver of notice (279.2).
Notice to the public of a special meeting must follow the same requirements as notice for a regular meeting.
Emergency meetings are held only when the board must act immediately and cannot wait the required 24-hour notice period for a special meeting. For example, if a board has bid on a piece of property, the bid is accepted and the board must act that same day in order to finalize the bid, then an emergency meeting is appropriate. Only on rare occasions will a board need to hold an emergency meeting. The minutes should state why the meeting was held without the required 24 hours notice.
A governmental body may conduct a meeting by electronic means such as telephone conference call only "in circumstances where such a meeting in person is impossible or impractical." Public access to the conversation must be provided "to the extent reasonably possible." Public notice must be given for the electronic meeting and minutes must be kept, which include the reason for not holding a meeting in person (21.8).
Notice of Meetings
A governmental body must give notice of the time, date and place of each meeting, and its tentative agenda, in a "manner reasonably calculated to apprise the public of that information." Reasonable notice includes advising the news media that have filed a request for notice, and posting the notice on a bulletin board, clearly designated for that purpose and easily accessible to the public, at the board’s central administrative office. Usually, such notice shall be at least 24 hours prior to the meeting. Holding meetings on shorter notice is not allowed unless it is critical. If a meeting is held on shorter notice, as much notice "as is reasonably possible" must be given, and the "nature of the good cause justifying departure from normal requirements" must be stated in the minutes (21.4). Notice must be given of meetings held by electronic means such as telephone conference calls (21.8).
The annual meeting is a regular or special meeting held sometime between August 31 and the board’s organizational meeting. The board’s secretary and treasurer may also be appointed for one-year terms at the annual meeting but annual appointments are no longer required. They may be the same person (279.3). The district’s legal counsel may also be appointed during this meeting. After August 31 and prior to the organizational meeting, the board must examine the financial books and settle the secretary’s and treasurer’s statements for the fiscal year ending the preceding June 30.
The organizational meeting must be held at the first regular meeting after the canvass of the regular school election. (279.1) It is at this meeting that a transfer of material and responsibility from the "old" board to the "new" board is effected. Upon termination of office, each board member immediately surrenders to his or her successor all books, papers and money pertaining or belonging to the office (277.31).
The following is a sample of an appropriate agenda for the organizational meeting.
MEETING OF THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS OF THE SCHOOL DISTRICT
____________________, 19 ______
1. Call to order.
2. Record of members present and absent.
3. Acknowledgement of fact of quorum.
4. Corrections or approval of minutes of last meeting (with or without reading).
5. Old business to conclude activities of the retiring school board.
6. Review of official report of the votes.
7. Adjournment of the retiring board.
1. Call to order.
2. Administration of the oath of office to newly elected board members.
3. Election of the president and other officers of the new board.
4. Administration of the oath of office to newly elected president and other officers.
5. Adopt written rules and procedures that will be followed in conducting board meetings (279.8).
6. Determination of time and place of regular school board meetings.
7. Other business.
A governmental body may hold a closed session only by affirmative public vote of either two-thirds of the members of the body, or all the members present at the meeting. A closed session may be held "only to the extent a closed session is necessary" for any of 10 reasons listed in the law. The ones most likely to apply to school board business are found in Section 21.5:
- To review or discuss records which are required or authorized by state or federal law to be kept confidential, or to be kept confidential as a condition for continuation of federal funds;
- To conduct hearings to suspend or expel a student, or to discuss whether to conduct such a hearing, unless an open session is requested by the student or a parent or guardian of the student if the student is a minor;
- To evaluate the professional competency of an individual whose appointment, hiring, performance or discharge is being considered when necessary to prevent needless and irreparable injury to that individual’s reputation and that individual requests a closed session;
- To discuss strategy with counsel in matters that are presently in litigation or where litigation is imminent where its disclosure would be likely to prejudice or disadvantage the position of the governmental body in that litigation;
- To discuss the purchase or sale of particular real estate only where premature disclosure could be reasonably expected to increase the price the governmental body would have to pay or lower the price the board would get for that property.
The vote of each member on the question of holding the closed session and the reason for the closed session, as listed in the law, shall be announced publicly at the open session, and entered in the minutes (21.5).
Only the business stated in the motion may be discussed in the closed session.
Any final action must be taken in open session, unless some other provision of the Code specifically permits action in closed session (21.5).
Detailed minutes must be kept of the closed session, including "discussion, persons present and action occurring." A tape recording also must be made. These are sealed records opened only on court order. Minutes and recording of a session involving real estate purchase are open to the public when the transaction is complete (21.5).
Termination Hearings are Exempt
Private hearings and deliberations conducted during the contract termination process for teachers and administrators are exempt from the open meetings law (279.15, 279.24)
"When the board has reached a decision, opinion or conclusion, it shall convene in open meeting and by roll call vote determine the continuance or discontinuance of the teacher’s (or administrator’s) contract. The record of the private conference and findings of fact and exceptions shall be exempt from the provisions of Chapter 22 (public records law) (279.16, 279.24).
Most Collective Bargaining Sessions are Exempt
The first two negotiations sessions of the year or season are open to the public and subject to all provisions regarding giving notice, public access and minutes. The employee organization must present its initial bargaining position to the employer at the first session; the public employer must present its initial bargaining position to the employee organization at the second session, held no later than two weeks after the first session.
"Negotiating sessions, strategy meetings of public employers or employee organizations, mediation and the deliberative process of arbitrators shall be exempt from the provisions of Chapter 21 (the open meetings law)" (20.17.).
Hearings conducted by arbitrators are open to the public (20.17.).
Where employees are not covered by a collective bargaining agreement under Chapter 20, strategy sessions of the board are exempt from the open meetings law (21.9).
Suit may be brought in district court to enforce the open meetings law. Damages can be assessed against individual board members. They are protected from individual damages if they voted against a closed session later found to be a violation, or if they had good reason to believe they were in compliance with the law, or reasonably relied on a court decision or their attorney’s opinion in taking the action later found to be erroneous.
Action taken in violation of the law is voidable by court decision if the public interest in enforcement outweighs the public interest in upholding the action, in the opinion of the court.
Repeated violations of the law are grounds for removal from office. Ignorance of the law is not a defense; boards are authorized by the open meetings law to seek legal or court opinions as necessary.
Each governmental body must keep minutes of all its meetings, formal and informal, showing the date, time and place, the members present, and the action taken at each meeting. The minutes must show the results of each vote taken and how each member voted, and the vote of each member present shall be made public at the open session. The minutes must be public records open to public inspection (21.3).
Section 279.35 requires publication of the proceedings of each regular, adjourned or special meeting of the board. That section requires the secretary to furnish a copy of the proceedings to be published within two weeks of adjournment of the meeting.
There seems to be no distinction between "minutes" and "proceedings." If the proceedings to be published contain the elements contemplated by the open meetings law, Chapter 21, they should be sufficient. The minutes to be included in the board minute book may be more detailed, including the full text of motions, resolutions or policies, an abstract of the speakers’ remarks, or attachments of reports or recommendations.
Iowa law strongly supports the concept that the operation of public agencies is the business of the public.
In addition to the statement of intent and the provisions of the open meetings law, Chapter 21, the Iowa Code stipulates that records and documents belonging to any governmental subdivision, including a school corporation, are public records (22.1), which every citizen has the right to examine (22.2).
Confidential records which contain personal information of students or employees, legal counsel’s work products (22.7) and worksheets and notes of employees (Opinion by Attorney General, Sept. 26, 1972) are not public records. Federal law regulates the confidentiality and accessibility of student records.
For an in-depth guide to open meetings and public records, see the IASB Open Meetings and Public Records Manual in print.