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Topics discussed in closed sessions must be described in agenda

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         IOWA         Freedom of Information         Jan 10, 2000    

Topics discussed in closed sessions must be described in agenda

  • Closed sessions of meetings subject to the state open records law must not include discussion of issues not listed on an agenda, even if the discussion concerns issues the public could expect to be covered.

An agenda for a public meeting must state with particularity any issues the agency or board intends to discuss in closed session, the Iowa Supreme Court in Des Moines ruled in late December.

Discussing issues not listed in the agenda violates the Open Meetings Act, the court ruled, even if the public or the press could anticipate what would be discussed during the closed session.

The case involves the board of a local school district and its meetings at the end of 1994 and beginning of 1995 to discuss the fate of the superintendent it shared with another school district, which had offered the superintendent a full-time position.

The agendas for the meetings, which the superintendent drafted, stated that the board may go into closed sessions to discuss the performance of the superintendent. In fact, the board also discussed other issues, including how the superintendent’s possible departure could affect the district’s administrative needs for the coming year.

The school board had argued that the agenda items were sufficient because the public and the press could anticipate that a discussion of the superintendent’s performance could lead to a discussion of other issues. The court rejected the argument.

“What was done was not a random reference to a prospective administrative issue as part of evaluating the superintendent’s past performance in closed session,” Justice James Carter wrote for the court in a Dec. 22 opinion. “Rather, what occurred was a deliberate decision to discuss an additional topic without showing it on the agenda.”

The court also found that the board may have violated the Open Meetings Act if the superintendent asked a reporter to leave one of the meetings because the board was about to go into closed sessions. After the reporter left the meeting, the board remained in open session.

The Supreme Court remanded to a lower court the issue of whether the superintendent had requested the reporter leave and implied the meetings were to go into closed sessions.

Had the superintendent done such a thing, as the reporter claims but the superintendent denies, the court would consider those portions of the meetings to be “de facto closed,” the court said. The board would then have been in violation of the Open Meetings Act for not taking a vote to go into a closed session, for not tape recording the session, and for considering an item not on the agenda, the court said.

(Barrett v. Lode)

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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