Accused of an open-meetings violation, county board stops recording its meetings

By: - May 21, 2021 1:21 pm

Iowa law books. (Photo courtesy of the Office of the Iowa Attorney General)

In response to residents “bashing” the Kossuth County Board of Supervisors, the board has opted to stop recording its public meetings.

The action was taken March 16 in the wake of a county resident filing a formal complaint against the board for allegedly violating the Iowa Open Meetings Law by meeting in secret.

County supervisor Kyle Stecker said Friday he opposed the move to stop recording board meetings, but he understands why the other four supervisors supported it. “We have had two or three citizens that will take what is said on those recordings completely out of context and bash, basically, anyone and everyone of the board,” Stecker said. “The (tapes) are being misused, so that was the biggest reason.”

County board member Roger Tjarks said the reason the board voted 4-1 to stop recording meetings was that its digital recorder broke.

“The recorder didn’t work, that was the biggest reason, and we never replaced it yet — and if we do replace it, well, I don’t know whether we will or not. It works fine, us not recording the meetings,” Tjarks said. “That was the main reason. That’s the only reason I can think of. I didn’t think it was a big deal because there’s nothing in the statute where it says you have to record the meetings.”

Kossuth County’s annual budget is about $22 million. Digital recorders typically cost between $40 to $150.

When asked, Tjarks acknowledged that some people in town had accused the board of not recording certain meetings because the members simply didn’t want to, and some people, he said, were selectively quoting board members’ comments by listening to the tapes. To address that issue, he said, the board voted to adopt a policy of not recording any more of its public meetings.

“They misquoted everything,” Tjarks said. “They take pieces of (what we say) and use it.”

Kossuth County Attorney Todd Holmes said Friday that until this week he was unaware of the board’s actions.

The meetings of the March 16 board meeting indicate the decision on recording meetings was made “due to the many technical issues we have had, it not being used for the minutes (as there is always a hard copy), and there is no requirement by code.”

The county’s actions represent the second time in recent weeks that a public body in Iowa has responded to a complaint filed with the Iowa Public Information Board by curtailing, rather than expanding, access to meetings and information. The city of Otho, after being accused of violating the Iowa Open Records Law, eliminated the public forum from its council meetings and stopped posting meeting notices to the city’s website.

Kossuth County’s decision to stop recording meetings was made shortly after a county resident filed a complaint against the county board with the Iowa Public Information Board. Tracy Carlson had attended a February meeting of the county board which had adjourned at 10:51 a.m. with one county supervisor stating, “I guess we’re done meeting until 4:30. We can meet back here at 4 p.m.,” which would have been in preparation for a budget workshop session. The board members took all of their belongings and then left the board room.

The board returned about 15 minutes later and met behind closed doors to discuss the budget, Carlson told the Iowa Public Information Board at its meeting Thursday.

“I believe the question everyone should be asking themselves is, ‘How would anyone at the regular meeting have known to come back in 15 minutes for the closed-door budget workshop?’ The answer is very simple: There was no way they could have known,” Carlson said at the IPIB meeting.

Carlson acknowledged the county’s position is that the board gave proper notice of the workshop because the official agenda indicated only that the budget workshop session would follow the regular meeting.

“They definitely, through their own words and through the sequence of events during the meeting, changed the agenda,” Carlson told IPIB. “They should not be able to fall back on an agenda that was not followed, regardless of whether it was written correctly or not.”

As to the board’s decision to stop recording its meetings, Carlson said the move, “although not illegal, does not instill confidence in the people who elected them.”

The county board also has stopped making note of the time of adjournment in its meeting minutes, she said — an allegation that appears to be supported by the minutes posted to the county’s website. Kossuth County Auditor Tammy Eden said the minutes no longer reflect an adjournment time because the board no longer adjourns any of its meetings and technically remains in session indefinitely.

Holmes, the county attorney, told IPIB on Thursday that he was unaware of an issue involving meeting adjournments until recently. The auditor, however, said Holmes was personally consulted on the decision to not adjourn board meetings.

“I know that they had talked about it with Todd Holmes,” Eden told the Iowa Capital Dispatch on Friday. “Roger (Tjarks) had said there was nothing in the law that said the meetings had to be adjourned, and Todd stated that was correct.”

Holmes said that discussion with Tjarks only took place this week, and not in March.

Carlson also told IPIB that county supervisors had met in closed session to discuss her complaint to IPIB, relying on the Iowa law that allows public bodies to privately discuss “imminent litigation.”  Carlson said there was never any indication given to the county board that litigation would result from her complaint.

“One would think the board would be working hard to correct anything that may not appear open and transparent to the public, instead of eliminating good practices in regard to adjournment and recording meetings for the constituents who cannot attend,” Carson told IPIB.

Carlson urged the IPIB board to accept her complaint and order the county to work with her on a resolution to the problem rather than dismiss the complaint as having been resolved. “Please vote your conscience as the constituents of Kossuth County are counting on you to protect their right to attend open meetings,” she said.

Holmes told the IPIB board that as the county attorney, he takes “sunshine laws very seriously.” He said while the county board never intended to mislead the public, it now acknowledges that its comments about the meeting resuming at 4:30 “could be misleading. So therefore they are going to be — from this point forward — more vigilant in guarding against making these statements that could possibly mislead the public.”

Holmes said the supervisors plan to watch a PowerPoint presentation on the importance of complying with the law. They will also post a notice on the meeting room door, alerting the public to the fact that although the doors are closed, the meeting is open to the public.

IPIB’s legal counsel, Zach Goodrich, told the board that what happened at the county board meeting in February was “unfortunate,” but there was no violation of the Chapter 21 of the Code of Iowa, better known as Iowa’s Open Meetings Law.

“In my mind there is no clear violation of Chapter 21, but clearly what happened is not what should be happening,” Goodrich said. “The things that they had to do were done. Yes, misleading statements were made, but I still cannot find, when I go through Chapter 21, what part of that chapter was violated.”

Iowa Public Information Board member Julie Pottorff said that although the county board’s conduct “is certainly very troublesome,” she agreed there was no violation of the law unless the supervisors’  announcement that it wouldn’t reconvene until 4:30 p.m., rather than 11 a.m., was “intended to mislead people.”

The IPIB board voted to adopt the staff recommendation dismissing Carlson’s complaint as legally insufficient. Members Pottorff, E.J. Giovannetti, Barry Lindahl, Keith Luchtel, Monica McHugh and Suzan Stewart voted in favor of the dismissal. Board members Joan Corbin, Rick Morain and Stan Thompson opposed approval of the dismissal order.

Shortly before the vote, Carlson told IPIB board members that she didn’t see how the county board’s statements to the public were ambiguous or open to interpretation.

“I cannot figure out how those statements could be interpreted any other way,” she said. “Not meeting until 4:30 means exactly that. ‘Meet back at 4 p.m.,’ is another statement that cannot be misinterpreted. It does not mean go behind closed doors between 11 and 12.”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.