IPIB AO 2019-04
IPIB AO 2019-04
July 18, 2019
SUBJECT: Iowa Code section 21.7, public comment restrictions at an open meeting
Editor Northeast Iowa Publications
Dear Ms. Dimitrova:
We are writing in response to your filing of June 18, 2019, requesting an opinion from the Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB) pursuant to Iowa Code section 23.6 and rule 497—1.2. We note at the outset that IPIB’s jurisdiction is limited to the application of Iowa Code chapters 21, 22, and 23, and rules in Iowa Administrative Code chapter 497. Advice in a Board opinion, if followed, constitutes a defense to a subsequent complaint based on the same facts and circumstances.
FACTUAL STATEMENT: You request an advisory opinion concerning whether Iowa Code section 21.7 allows a governmental body to limit the topics that may be discussed by members of the public during an open meeting of that governmental body. You state that during a recent meeting, the mayor of a town in Iowa would not allow members of the public to make comment on a certain topic that had been discussed and voted upon at previous open meetings.
Does a mayor, or any other city official for that matter, have the authority to ban a specific subject and hence regulate the content of a message from being discussed during the public comments section of a meeting?
Iowa Code section 21.7 allows a governmental body to limit public participation at an open meeting:
21.7 Rules of conduct at meetings.
The public may use cameras or recording devices at any open session. Nothing in this chapter shall prevent a governmental body from making and enforcing reasonable rules for the conduct of its meetings to assure those meetings are orderly, and free from interference or interruption by spectators.
There is no statutory guidance in Chapter 21 as to whether the ‘banning’ of a particular topic is allowed under this statute. There do not appear to be any Iowa court decisions that would offer guidance on whether this is considered a reasonable exercise of the statutory authority to establish rules for conduct at meetings.
The Iowa Attorney General has posted two “Sunshine Advisories’ on Iowa Code section 21.7. One states that while the public has the right to observe and record a meeting, they do not have the right to actively participate. The other advises that governmental bodies should encourage public comment by allocating time for public comment, “structured by reasonable rules of conduct, such as advance deadlines for requesting an opportunity to speak, and reasonable time limits for oral comments.”
The Iowa Public Information Board has an FAQ (frequently asked question) that offers guidance on Iowa Code section 21.7. This FAQ states, in part:
While the open meetings act provides no mandate that a public agency must provide meeting time to any citizen with something to say, due process and democratic principles will dictate that a public body should hear those affected by proposed actions. Typically, many public agencies set aside time for a “public forum” or an “open forum,” but they are under no mandate under Chapter 21 to do so. Even when discussing a controversial item on its agenda, the public agency understandably does not have to provide time to each person at the meeting.
It would appear that limiting the topics to be discussed during a public comment period would not be a per se violation of Iowa Code chapter 21, given that the Code allows a governmental body to set limits on audience participation.
You should seek the advice of counsel as to whether this conduct violated your constitutional rights.
BY DIRECTION AND VOTE OF THE BOARD
Renee Twedt, Chair
E. J. Giovannetti
Submitted by: Margaret E. Johnson, Executive Director
ISSUED ON: _____July 18, 2019_________
The IPIB does not enter this or any advisory opinion to determine whether a government or governmental body violated Iowa Code chapter 21 or 22. The purpose of an advisory opinion is to provide guidance on future actions of such bodies.
Pursuant to Iowa Administrative Rule 497-1.3(3), a person who has received a board opinion may, within 30 days after the issuance of the opinion, request modification or reconsideration of the opinion. A request for modification or reconsideration shall be deemed denied unless the board acts upon the request within 60 days of receipt of the request. The IPIB may take up modification or reconsideration of an advisory opinion on its own motion within 30 days after the issuance of an opinion.
Pursuant to Iowa Administrative Rule 497-1.3(5), a person who has received a board opinion or advice may petition for a declaratory order pursuant to Iowa Code section 17A.9. The IPIB may refuse to issue a declaratory order to a person who has previously received a board opinion on the same question, unless the requestor demonstrates a significant change in circumstances from those in the board opinion.