Pella Chronicle

November 11, 2012

Public Comments may lead to lawsuit

By Steve Woodhouse
The Chronicle

Pella — The Marion County Board of Supervisors will continue to have an item on its agenda, specifically to hear concerns from the public, despite objections from County Attorney Ed Bull.

Supervisor Jim Kingery opened discussion on this topic at a special meeting Wednesday by saying that it is a fundamental right for the public to be able to come in to address their elected officials. Supervisor Craig Agan agreed.

As for Bull, he said he contacted the Attorney General's Office to seek guidance. According to Bull, he was told that accepting public comments is usually responsible for elected bodies' violations of the Open Meetings Law. Even if the elected body so much as directs a staff member to do something for a citizen, without the subject on the posted agenda, it is a violation of the Open Meetings Law. Bull advised the supervisors to have the public contact them and then put the issue on a meeting agenda.

“That's taking the public out of government,” Kingery said. He believes that people may be inconvenienced if they are asked to come to a meeting. Members of the public rarely attend board meetings, unless they have an issue on the agenda already. Agan believes the Attorney General should raise his awareness of what is going on in the state before offering such an opinion.

Precedent exists in Iowa courts in which public bodies have been successfully sued for violations. Jasper County, Johnson County and the City of Cascade were sued. Those cases were mentioned in a memo regarding this issue. Elected officials, if the body is found guilty of a violation, could face individual fines and penalties.

Kingery is concerned that the public remains unaware of the meeting times or the actions of the board. Agendas and reports on these meetings are routinely posted on pellachronicle.com and minutes of every meeting are printed in the Legal Notices section of the Pella Chronicle,  Journal-Express and Marion County News. Agendas and minutes can also be found on the County's website,  www.co.marion.ia.us. Kingery also complained that the County's website is difficult to navigate, to find what one is looking for.

Agan and Kingery voted to have a specific Public Comments section on the agenda, with Chair Sam Nichols voting against.