What Government Officials Should Know About Open Meetings and Open Files | Columns

Congratulations on being elected to government office in Iowa. Now is the time to take on your role as a city councilor or school board member.

Section 21.10 of the Iowa Code requires that you receive information about public meetings and public records laws. Failure to comply with Chapter 21 (public meetings) or Chapter 22 (public records) may result in the personal and individual liability of an offending public official.

The Iowa Public Information Board has a useful training powerpoint available on the IPIB website at www.ipib.iowa.gov. The IPIB urges all government officials, elected or appointed, to seek appropriate training. Here’s an overview of Iowa’s transparency laws:

Open meetings

Chapter 21 of the Iowa Code describes the requirements for open meetings. The purpose of the chapter is clearly stated in the first section: “Intent – policy statement.” This chapter aims to ensure, through the requirement of open meetings of government bodies, that the basis and justification for government decisions, as well as these decisions themselves, are easily accessible to the population. Ambiguity in the construction or application of this chapter must be resolved in favor of openness.

A public meeting is required by Iowa law. Government agencies are required to provide at least 24 hours notice for meetings. Regardless of the name of the meeting (regular, special, working session, electronic, etc.), whether there is deliberation or action on an issue as part of the organization’s policy-making functions by the majority of members, it is considered a meeting and must be open.

Meetings can be held in person or electronically. Electronic meetings (which may include email and SMS meetings) must meet the requirements outlined in Section 21.8 of the Iowa Code.

The public should also be informed of the meeting agenda. This agenda should be written in such a way that the public is reasonably informed of the business to be dealt with at the meeting. The vote must take place in public session. Closed sessions are strictly limited to the few exceptions described in Chapter 21 and must follow the rules set out by Iowa law.

Minutes are kept of all meetings. The minutes must mention the date, time and place, the members present and the measures taken during the meeting. The vote of each member present must be made public during the meeting and in the minutes. Secret votes are not allowed. These minutes are public records.

Public documents

Chapter 22 of the Iowa Code deals with public records laws in Iowa. Every government agency is required to delegate responsibility for responding to requests for public records and to “publicly announce” the legal custodian of its public records. The government cannot circumvent the requirements of the Public Archives Act by storing the archives “off-site” or contracting with a third party to collect and store the archives.

Government officials also cannot circumvent public records laws by conducting government activity on a cell phone, laptop, computer, or other electronic device owned by an individual. The government agency is responsible for retrieving public records that are stored “offsite” or by a third party.

A fee may be charged by a government agency to retrieve, review, and publish a government record. These charges should be based on the actual cost incurred by the government agency. It is not necessary for a government agency to charge a fee for public records. It is recommended by the Iowa Public Information Board that a government agency develop a policy regarding fees and review it frequently to ensure that it complies with Iowa law.

Under Iowa law, some records may be confidential. The government body is not required under Chapter 22 to withhold a file that may be confidential. However, if a case is accepted, the government body will be responsible for showing why the case is confidential. Public records must be published promptly. If a delay is anticipated, it is recommended that the escrow agent explains the reason for the delay.

Government regulations are public records. Iowa law sets out the procedure a government agency must follow to provide public access to a settlement agreement and summary required by Iowa law.

All elected and appointed members of a government body should be trained on public meetings and public records laws. Failure to comply with public records laws may result in legal penalties or review by the Iowa Public Information Council.

Specific information about Iowa’s transparency laws and training tips are available on the Iowa Public Information Board website: www.ipib.iowa.gov or by calling the IPIB at 515-725-1781.

Margaret Johnson is the Executive Director of the Iowa Public Information Board. Each month, the IPIB publishes an information section on the law on public meetings and open archives. The Iowa Public Information Board is an independent agency that helps citizens and governments use and comply with Iowa’s laws on open meetings and open recordings.

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