Supreme Court gives Upper Explorerland case back to district court
Sunday, June 09, 2013 6:11 AM
The Iowa Supreme Court is ordering Allamakee County District Court to retry a portion of a lawsuit that alleges open meetings violations were committed by Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission.
The suit, filed by the city of Postville and resident Jason Meyer, alleges the Commission broke Iowa public meeting laws by using a secret ballot to approve the purchase of office space in Decorah in the fall of 2010, and by failing to provide proper notice of meetings. Before the vote, Upper Explorerland only had offices in Postville. It now has offices in both cities.
Judge Thomas Bitter dismissed the case against the Commission last year in Allamakee County District Court. A Supreme Court ruling issued Friday affirmed the lower court's decision "in part," reversed its decision "in part" and remanded the case to District Court "with directions."
In its Friday ruling, the Supreme Court questioned whether the Commission provided proper notification of meetings to the public because the only notice posted was on a bulletin board in a hallway inside the Commission's Postville office.
While notice was given five days in advance of every meeting, the Supreme Court stated "the public does not utilize the hallway where the bulletin board is located, unless the individual has an appointment or used the restroom."
"We find a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether placing the notices of meetings on the bulletin board in the hallway complied with," the Iowa Open Meetings Act (IOMA), the Court's ruling stated.
"Therefore, we remand this issue back to the district court for trial," the Supreme Court ruling stated.
The Supreme Court upheld the District Court's decision that Commission members didn't intentionally violate the law with the secret ballot, because the board later held a public vote after members questioned the validity of that vote.
"We find no genuine issue of material fact as to whether the members' actions involved intentional misconduct or a knowing violation of the law," the ruling stated.
The city of Postville and Meyer's petition against Upper Explorerland contains 51 counts alleging various Iowa open meeting laws violations, including the secret ballot and subsequent reaffirmation vote to purchase office space in Decorah, in addition to closed sessions the plaintiffs claimed lacked reasonable notice held from Oct. 28, 1999, through Aug. 19, 2010.
The lawsuit sought $500 from each member of the Commission per open meeting violation and asked the court to order that either individual members or the Commission pay its attorney fees.
"Thus, the relief sought was against both the individual members of the Commission and the governmental body as a whole," the Court noted in its ruling.
Commission members argued they are immune from personal liability under the Federal Volunteer Protection Act and the state immunity provision in Iowa Code. The Code provides that protection unless the person's actions involve intentional misconduct or a knowing violation of the law, or if the person derived improper personal benefit from the act. The Supreme Court concluded individuals are immune under state law.
"On our review of the record, we find no evidence to show the actions of the members of the Commission amounted to intentional or a knowing violation of the Iowa Open Meetings Act."
The lawsuit also alleged, from 1999 through 2009, the Commission failed to comply with annual publication requirements because it publishes the names and salaries of its members in the Oelwein Daily Register. The city of Postville and Meyer contended the Register is not a "newspaper of general circulation."
However, the Supreme Court ruled the Register has "sufficiently diverse subscriptions within the area served by the Commission to qualify as a newspaper of general circulation" affirming the District Court's earlier decision to dismiss the claim.
The Supreme Court also ordered the District Court to determine if the plaintiffs are entitled to compensation for attorney fees and costs for the appeal and any subsequent proceedings in the District Court under the IOMA.