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Iowa High Court Slams County’s Closed-Door Layoffs

DES MOINES, Iowa - County supervisors may have violated Iowa's Open Meetings Act by holding a series of closed-door discussions to develop a plan to terminate public employees, the Iowa Supreme Court has ruled.

The March 18 decision reverses a state court's dismissal of the case.

The debate centers upon what constitutes a "meeting" for the purposes of Iowa's Open Meetings Act, which requires that meetings of government bodies be open to the public so the rationale behind government decisions is "easily accessible to the people," according to Iowa law.

Justice David Wiggins summarized the dispute in his 29-page ruling.

Even though the Warren County Board of Supervisors appointed Supervisor Steve Wilson to review the county workforce for potential "reorganization" at an open budget meeting in early 2014, the discussions moved behind closed doors after that. The public knew nothing about plans to terminate specific employees until the end of March, when the board served 11 county workers with notices of termination.

According to the ruling, six employees accepted the offered severance packages. The remaining five sued the county three weeks later, claiming violations of Iowa's Open Meetings Act.

While Wilson was in Mexico, he appointed county administrator Mary Jean Furler to head up the reorganization discussions on his behalf. In January and February 2014, Furler met individually with the other two supervisors about the reorganization plan and conveyed one supervisor's comments and feedback to the other. Using this method of communication, the supervisors selected which employees to terminate by the end of February.

The trial court found that because a "majority" of supervisors was never present during these discussions, they did not violate the Open Meetings Act.

But the terminated employees claimed the discussions were a violation because "Administrator Furler acted as each supervisor's agent by conveying his thoughts and opinions to the other supervisors," according to the ruling. "Thus they contend each gathering between Administrator Furler and an individual supervisor was the legal equivalent of a gathering between two or three supervisors."

Wiggins, writing for a divided seven-judge panel, acknowledged that the court had "yet to address this scenario under our open meetings law," but found that appellants' argument had merit.

The justice added that interpreting the triggering event for the open meetings law too narrowly would "be at odds" with the intent of the law, which is to ensure government transparency, and which instructs ambiguities to be resolved "in favor of openness."

"Were we to reach the opposite conclusion, we would encourage members of governmental bodies to enlist agents to deliberate matters of public policy on their behalf outside the public view in order to purposefully evade the open meetings law," Wiggins continued.

Indeed, Wiggins says the record supports the supervisors' intent to develop a "sophisticated methodology" to communicate with one another without triggering the requirements of the act.

This system worked so well that the supervisors "managed to implement the restructuring of the county government without deliberating a single detail of the reorganization plan during a public meeting," Wiggins wrote, acknowledging that the supervisors knew such discussions would entail "conflict and discomfort" in a public forum.

But Justice Thomas Waterman cautioned that the majority's decision could have a "chilling" effect on public officials wishing to discuss policy outside open meetings.

"Let us consider the dilemma now faced by public officials who want to do their homework by sitting down with an administrator privately, rather than prolonging a public meeting," he wrote in his dissent. "May they continue to confer privately or in small groups? Or, if they do, could someone sue them for violating [the Open Meetings Act]?"

Justices Edward Mansfield and Bruce Zager joined Waterman's dissent.

Mansfield also penned his own two-page dissent focusing on Furler's lack of decision-making authority. "Serial communications, whether the courier happens to be the mail, a carrier pigeon, Pony Express, or Administrator Furler, do not violate the open meetings law," he wrote.

He accused the majority of confusing the matter by "treating all agencies as if they were identical," and emphasizing that Furler was a "conduit" or "messenger" - not a proxy.

"We agree with the dissenting justices in the case," Patrick Smith, attorney for the Board of Supervisors, told Courthouse News. "There hasn't been a finding yet that there's been an open meeting act violation."

Smith added that the Iowa Supreme Court added a "new criteria" for what constitutes a gathering: the inclusion of an administrator as a proxy.

"That's a brand new standard that didn't apply before," Smith said. "That's not the standard the trial court applied the first time."

Justice Wiggins offered instructions when the trial court takes a second look at the case.

"If the court finds an agency relationship existed and Administrator Furler acted within the scope of her authority in helping the supervisors to deliberate the details of reorganization, it should apply [the law] in accordance with this opinion to conclude that a violation of the open meetings law occurred," he wrote.

"This is an important day for people who want to monitor the work of their governmental bodies," Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council said in a statement released the day of the ruling. "It was obvious to the trial court, to the Supreme Court and to anyone who reads the court's decision today that the Warren County Board of Supervisors deliberately went out of its way to avoid any public discussion of the proposed reorganization until after board members had decided how the workforce would be shrunk and whose jobs would be eliminated."

The organization submitted an amicus brief that was instrumental in outlining the position ultimately adopted by the Supreme Court.

Although the employees' attorney Thomas Foley indicated in an email his willingness to discuss the case with Courthouse News, he could not be reached by deadline.

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