Public employers have it tough. Government resentment is at an all time high, expectations are up, and budgets are down. Add to that the growing protections to public employees under state and federal law, and this can make HR decisions and issues a nightmare.
The Iowa Supreme Court ruled today on a case concerning what constitutes an “open meeting” under Iowa law. The thing is, the lawsuit challenging the meeting was brought by employees terminated under a reorganization plan.
Open Meetings Violation a New Employment Claim?
This is an important case for public employers because a core holding was:
Because we conclude agency principles are relevant to determining whether a gathering satisfies the statutory definition of meeting in section 21.2(2), we conclude the legal equivalent of an in-person gathering of a majority of the members of a public body takes place whenever a majority of the members of a governmental body meet, whether each member attends personally or through an agent.
In this case, County Supervisors met separately and individually with an Administrator (having “serial meetings,” which have been held lawful and not an open meeting violation), but the Court found that the Administrator acted as an “agent” for absent Supervisors and served as a “conduit” for their deliberations by communicating their various positions and concerns. As a result the Court found that this constituted an “open meeting” violation. So there’s this Open Meetings reminder.
However, the subtext is clear. This case may not have made much of a splash if the Supervisors were addressing a routine piece of public business in their meetings. However, the Supervisors’ meetings involved a reorganization plan that terminated employees. It was six of the terminated employees who filed the lawsuit.
A broader summary and link to the case is below:
Former Warren County employees brought an action against the county and its board of supervisors alleging a violation of the open meetings law contained in chapter 21 of the Iowa Code. The district court dismissed the action, finding the board members’ activities did not constitute a “meeting” as defined in Iowa Code section 21.2(2) (2013). In reaching its conclusion, the district court found that although the board members deliberated concerning matters within the scope of their policy-making duties, a majority of the supervisors never deliberated at a meeting within the meaning of section 21.2(2). On appeal, we conclude the definition of meeting in section 21.2(2) extends to all in-person gatherings at which there is deliberation upon any matter within the scope of the policy-making duties of a governmental body by a majority of its members, including in-person gatherings attended by a majority of the members by virtue of an agent or a proxy. Therefore, we reverse the judgment of the district court and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
4-3 Dec., Wiggins for Court
Waterman, Mansfield, and Zager dissent