Guidelines for "Tentative Agenda" and Reasonable Notice
What guidelines have been established for providing the “tentative agenda” and reasonable notice of public meetings called for in Chapter 21.4?
This area, too, has received considerable attention from public agencies, the news media, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Iowa Supreme Court in a July 1991 decision.
The standards of notice in Chapter 21.4 are the minimum requirements. For example, advising interested persons to listen to a certain radio station at a set time for information about an upcoming meeting would not constitute “reasonable notice.” Further, a “tentative” agenda must include more information than simply reciting such catchall items as “Approval of minutes; old business; new business,” or by using the same agenda contents for meeting after meeting.
In its opinion in KCOB/KLVN, Inc. v. Jasper County Bd. of Sup’rs., 473 N.W.2d 171 (Iowa 1991), the Iowa Supreme Court set forth several guidelines for meeting notices and tentative agendas. These included:
- “… (T)he content of a tentative agenda notice can be subject to change. … (A) proper construction of the notice provision in section 21.4 allows discussion and action on emergency items that are first ascertained at a meeting for which proper notice was given. … However, if action can be reasonably deferred to a later meeting, this should be done.” In other words, if action can be delayed for at least 24 hours to allow for legal notice, it should be.
- “… The sufficiency of the detail on the tentative agenda must be viewed in the context of surrounding events.” Here the Court said that the test for a tentative agenda was whether the information was reasonably sufficient to alert interested people as to the subject matter to be considered. (For example, in Vandaele v. Board of Education (2002 WL 575666), the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled that a brief item on a school board agenda was sufficient, citing evidence that the superintendent had discussed the issue in newspapers and that the meeting was well publicized.)
- The Court said that the standard for compliance with the meeting and notice procedures should be “substantial” rather than “absolute.” That is, the Court will not find a public agency to be in violation of Chapter 21 if the violation is strictly or primarily a technical one where the precise letter of the law is not followed. If a public agency acting in good faith substantially complied with the law, that will be sufficient for the Court.
- The Court did caution, however, that “a lack of wrongful intent to violate the open meetings law cannot excuse non-compliance.” The Court affirmed legislative intent that ignorance of the legal requirements of Chapter 21 is not a defense against substantive violations.
The Supreme Court revisited the issue of what constitutes an adequate agenda for a public meeting in Barrett v. Lode, 603 N.W.2d 766 (Iowa 1999). The Court ruled that closed sessions of meetings subject to the open meetings law must not include issues not listed on the agenda. An agenda for a public meeting must specifically state any issues the board intends to discuss in closed session, and discussing topics not noted on the agenda violates the law, even if the public could have anticipated the issues would arise.
Notice of a meeting and the tentative agenda are to be provided by the public agency involved; a news agency requesting notice does not have to pay postage or other costs to receive the notice and the tentative agenda, according to an Attorney General’s opinion (Cook to Menke, 79-4-19).
A news medium or individual citizen cannot be restricted to having only the “tentative agenda” and “reasonable notice” of an upcoming public meeting. An Attorney General’s opinion (Stork to McDonald, 81-8-24) makes clear that material prepared for discussion at a public meeting is a public record under Chapter 22, the law for inspection of public records. Consequently, an individual may request copies of that material in advance of the public meeting and in accord with provisions of Chapter 22. In this case, however, the individual might have to pay the costs for copying agenda material, as covered in Chapter 22.