‘Total retaliation:’ City council curtails public notice of meetings, eliminates public forum

In response to residents “bashing” the Kossuth County Board of Supervisors, the board has opted to stop recording its public meetings. (Photo courtesy of the Office of the Iowa Attorney General)

The small Iowa town that underwent legal training after violating Iowa’s public records law has now curtailed public access to city council agendas and meeting notices, and eliminated the public forum from its council meetings.

The actions by the Otho city council come one month after council member Jimmy Beekman told city residents they “can stick the Sunshine Law where the sun don’t shine,” and three weeks after the council underwent training in how to comply with Iowa’s Open Records Law and Open Meetings Law.

Historically, the Webster County town of 442 people city has posted notices of council meetings, along with meeting agendas and minutes, to the city’s website. In the past few weeks, however, the website was scrubbed of those documents. Meeting notices are still posted in a window at City Hall, which is closed to the public due to the pandemic, and at a local community center and convenience store.

The most recently posted notice indicates the council has eliminated from its agenda the public forum typically used by cities, counties and school districts to give residents a chance to speak on issues.

Otho resident Kay Bergren said Wednesday she believes the council’s actions are in direct response to her and others questioning the actions of the city’s elected officials. “It’s a total retaliation to the folks of Otho, Iowa, I believe,” she said. “Everything is behind the backs of the citizens and now we have absolutely no ability to question anything.”

Asked why the city had opted to do away with the online publication of meeting notices, minutes and agendas, council member Travis Stanberg said Wednesday, “We are meeting the state requirements. It does not have to be posted to the city website, and therefore it will not be posted.” As for the elimination of the public forum at council meetings, Stanberg said, “That’s outside of my control, so I really don’t know what they’re doing with that.”

Mayor Mark Groat and City Clerk Sherry Simmons could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

As Stanberg said, Iowa law doesn’t require city councils to post their meeting agendas, notices and minutes to a website, nor does it require elected officials to provide a public forum for residents to speak at meetings — although both practices are fairly common, according to the Iowa League of Cities.

When a league representative gave the Otho council training on the law last month, one of the council members asked whether the city was required by law to give the public an opportunity to speak during council meetings. “Not at all, not at all,” the trainer replied, adding that it was something many cities chose to do voluntarily.

The city’s troubles date back to January, when Bergren filed a formal complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board, alleging Otho was violating the Open Records Law, also known as the Sunshine Law.

Bergren complained that she had requested public records from the mayor the previous month and never received them. She claimed she also was denied copies of city ordinances, with city officials telling her she could review the documents at City Hall “once city hall opens back up” after the pandemic.

 According to Bergren, the city then adopted a records policy that required payment for access to public records and made it retroactive to her request.

With that change, the fees for record retrieval were set at $30 per hour for the first hour, and $10 for each additional quarter-hour. Copies of records were priced at 30 cents per page, and the policy required citizens to put their requests in writing using a specific city form.

Once the Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB) became involved, the city council agreed to acknowledge during an open, public meeting that its requirements for requesting records, the examination of records, and the fees charged for records did not comply with Iowa law. The council also agreed to open-meetings and open-records training for themselves and for the city clerk.

But at an April 13 council meeting, held after that agreement with IPIB was reached, Beekman publicly denounced citizens who had “reported” them to state officials for alleged violations of state law. Beekman said that in his 23 years on the council, he had never had to deal with so much “crap” from people.

“We’ve had several instances where the council has been turned in to the state, to the DNR, to the sheriff’s department, for different things — most of them not true,” Beekman said. “We now also have to go to a class to take, to learn how to be a councilman, I guess … This might not be appropriate, either, but you can take your Sunshine Law and stick it where the sun don’t shine.”

At the training session last month, council members asked why the city has to respond to information requests from “somebody who’s not a taxpayer” or a resident of the town. “Why should we have to supply them paperwork about what’s going in our town?” a council member asked. The trainer noted the law doesn’t give city residents a greater right of access than other members of the public.

City officials have said Otho now charges $17.50 an hour to retrieve public records, an amount that’s equal to the city clerk’s rate of pay, plus 30 cents per page for any copies that are requested.