Court: County officials liable for open meetings violation

DES MOINES — In a decision likely to create concern among many members of boards, commissions and councils, the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that three county supervisors serving as trustees of an agriculture drainage district must pay thousands of dollars in fines and attorney fees for violating the state’s open meetings laws.

The case centers on two meetings held in November 2013 by three members of the Harrison County Board of Supervisors who also serve as trustees of a local drainage district.

Robert Smith, Walter Utman and Gaylord Pitt were discussing whether or not to rebuild a levee near Modale to hold back Missouri River floodwaters in the fall of 2013. A group of local farmers were upset after the levee failed in 2011 and flooded their farm fields. They said the supervisors acting as drainage district trustees weren’t making proper repairs to protect their land.

After the trustees were threatened with legal action by local farmers they closed a portion of their meetings on Nov. 7 and Nov. 14 to discuss possible litigation.

Two of the farmers, James Olinger and Larry Meyer, sued in November 2013 claiming the meetings violated Iowa’s open meetings laws.

A district court judge found an open meetings violation occurred, but also determined the trustees went into a closed meeting on the advice of their secretary who said their attorney recommended it and that they in good faith attempted to comply with the open meetings laws.

The judge imposed a fine on the drainage district but did not individually find the trustees liable based on their good-faith defense.

The drainage district was taxed with costs including attorney fees.

Appeals court justices found that the reason cited for the closed meetings — to discuss strategy with counsel in matters involving litigation — did not apply since the trustees’ attorney was not present at the meetings.

“Here, two meetings were held, twice the trustees voted to go into closed session, and both times there was no statutory basis for closing the session,” the court ruled. “This was more than a ‘procedural irregularity,’ which resulted in the actual exclusion of persons from the meeting.”

The court said the trustees may not have known their actions violated the open meetings laws, but it found that ignorance is no defense.

The court fined each of the three members $200 for the two open meeting violations and concluded they must individually pay attorney fees, which Jessica Zupp, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said will total nearly $25,000.

Zupp said the court’s ruling “puts some teeth back into the open meetings statute and reminds our elected leaders that they are accountable to the citizens and to the voters.”

Only Utman remains on the board. Pitt died in office in May at age 84 and Robert Smith was defeated in the June 2014 primary.

Utman and the board’s attorney did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

The trustees may seek a rehearing before the full Iowa Court of Appeals and may ask the Iowa Supreme Court to consider an appeal.