Why is the law's coverage on meetings limited?
In one sentence of Chapter 21.2, “meeting” is defined broadly to include most formal and informal gatherings of a majority of members of a governmental body. In the next sentence, however, gatherings “for purely ministerial or social purposes” are not considered to be “meetings.” Why is the law’s coverage limited in this way?
A wide range of activities could fall within the definition of “meeting.” Most of these gatherings are included in Chapter 21.2’s definition of “meeting.” An important exception is a gathering of less than a majority of members. If the notice, openness and record-keeping requirements of Chapter 21 were applied to such a gathering, it could limit free speech and association rights of public officials.
Chapter 21.2 does define a “meeting” of a majority of the members as excluding gatherings for purely social or ministerial purposes where there is no discussion of policy or no intent to avoid the purposes of the Act.
The definition of “meeting” permits the majority to gather for limited purposes without being subject to the requirements of the Act. A purely social gathering is placed outside the coverage of the statute to avoid a collision with the association rights of public officials under the First Amendment. Likewise, if a majority of the members of a governmental body is simply traveling together to a meeting, conference, etc., that activity would be outside the scope of Chapter 21 so long as there was no discussion of policy and there was no intent to avoid the purposes of the Act.
A gathering of a majority of members for purely ministerial purposes is excluded from the Act’s coverage because a ministerial matter by definition excludes exercising any discretion about policy matters. Clear examples are the members’ signing of letters or documents whose contents have been approved in a prior, formal open meeting, or school board members attending graduation ceremonies.
Questions about “ministerial” functions and information-gathering trips by governmental bodies have been addressed in Attorney General’s opinions, including Cook to Pellett and Crabb, 79-5-14, Stork to Reis, 81-2-13, and Stork to O’Kane, 81-7-4.
The last opinion notes, “… It appears that gathering for ‘purely ministerial purposes’ may include a situation in which members of a governmental body gather simply to receive information upon a matter within the scope of the body’s policy making duties. … We emphasize, however, that the nature of any such gathering may change if either ‘deliberation’ or ‘action’ … occurs. A ‘meeting’ may develop … if a majority of the members of a body engage in any discussion that focuses at all concretely on matters over which they may exercise judgment or discretion.”
In Dooley v. Johnson County Bd. of Sup'rs. (2008 WL 5234382), the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled that the board did not violate the open meetings law when members met privately with a consulting company to review a preliminary draft of a report, asked questions and elicited clarification. However, the Court noted, “Gathering for this purpose appears dangerously close to ‘deliberation.’ Even absent any intention to deliberate, such discussions could arise effortlessly. We believe the board's decision to review the draft in this fashion was a poor one.”
The law provides latitude by exempting “ministerial” and “social” functions from coverage by Chapter 21, but plainly the latitude must be drawn narrowly to be consistent with Chapter 21’s mandate for openness.