By Rox Laird
On Brief: Iowa’s Appellate Blog
In December the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled that the Harrison County Board of Supervisors violated the Iowa open meetings law.
Last week, the Iowa Supreme Court declined to review the lower court’s decision.
That leaves in place the lower court’s ruling that the Harrison County supervisors violated the law when they twice went into closed session to discuss the threat of litigation. It also leaves in place the Appeals Court’s order that the three supervisors each pay $200 in fines and split the plaintiff’s trial and appellate fees estimated at nearly $25,000.
The supervisors were acting in their capacity as trustees for an agricultural drainage district at the time of the closed meetings. The topic of discussion was a threat of litigation in the wake of a dispute over the condition of a levee maintained by the drainage district. Two Harrison County farmers brought the open meetings lawsuit.
The open meetings law provides an exception for closed sessions “[t]o 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.”
No legal counsel was present at either closed session, however.
The Court of Appeals also rejected the supervisors’ argument that there was no violation of the law because the meetings were closed on the advice of legal counsel. That’s because the law requires that such advice from counsel be “given in writing” or “memorialized in the minutes of the meeting at which a formal oral opinion was given.”
In this case, however, the supervisors did not receive a written opinion from counsel and “no counsel directly provided oral advice to the trustees at any time before or during the meeting.”