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Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016

County government too quick to shut the door on openness

Friday, August 19, 2005

At its most recent meeting, the Plymouth County Board of Supervisors spent more than an hour in two separate closed sessions. In both cases, the reason given for the closed sessions was "threatened or pending litigation."

Unfortunately, Chapter 21 of the Iowa Code allows governmental bodies to enter closed sessions in these matters only if litigation is presently taking place or is imminent. From the Iowa Freedom of Information Council's 11th Edition of the Iowa Open Meetings and Open Records Handbook:

"Certain conditions must be met before a meeting may be closed under this exemption: (1) the litigation must be in progress or be "imminent," not merely possible or likely at some future date, (2) if the litigation is "imminent," the disclosure of strategy would likely prejudice or disadvantage the government body's case, and (3) legal counsel should be present."

In the supervisors' first closed session, they were discussing the ongoing battle over the construction of the Plymouth County Law Enforcement Center. Much of the case has already been made a matter of public record in open court -- what more could the county hope to "protect" in closed session?

In the supervisors' second closed session, no clear reason was given regarding what the imminent or present litigation affecting the county might be. We know most of those who were present behind closed doors, but we have no idea why.

The county frequently receives updates regarding chapters 21 and 22 of the Iowa Code from Attorney General Tom Miller. Elected officials are schooled on the state's "sunshine laws," as well.

There's no excuse for closing the doors on open government. The public trust demands openness, even if doing so inconveniences or embarrasses public officials.

© 2016 Le Mars Daily Sentinel