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The rules of public meetings

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Ever attend a meeting of your city council, school board, or county board of supervisors? What rules govern their meetings? Do you know whether or how you can participate? A quick review of the basics about local governments might be useful.

All local governments generally follow Robert’s Rules of Order to run their meetings. But because officials are elected, most public bodies apply the rules in a way that permits residents to make comments at their meetings.

The agendas of city councils, county boards of supervisors, and school boards usually include a time for public comments, generally toward the beginning of their meetings. Individuals are usually time-limited for those comments, commonly less than five minutes, and are then prohibited from speaking during the meeting unless the public body grants them time to comment on specific agenda items when those items come up for discussion.

Residents are usually cautioned against criticizing a specific public employee during their remarks; public bodies usually have a procedure for lodging a complaint against an employee, first with the employee’s supervisor and then, if satisfaction is not achieved, on up the supervisory chain.

If a complaint against an individual works its way up the chain to the council or board, the employee has the right to ask that the public body go into closed session to discuss the complaint in order to avoid irreparable damage to the employee’s reputation.

Speaking of closed sessions, as of today Iowa has 73 legal exceptions to the requirement that meetings of public bodies be held in open session. The exceptions are found in Chapter 21 of the Iowa Code, the chapter on open meetings. 

To go into closed session, the law requires a vote of two-thirds of the members of the public body. If less than all members of the board or council are present, then the vote by the board or council must be unanimous in order to close a meeting.

During a meeting, the public body can act only on items on its meeting agenda, which must be publicly posted at the meeting location at least 24 hours before the meeting’s start. An exception to that requirement can take place if an important item arises less than 24 hours before the meeting begins, or if unforeseen circumstances make the 24-hour requirement impossible to fulfill.

The attendance of a majority of the public body’s members constitutes a legal meeting (a quorum). Passage of most action items on the agenda requires support from a majority of the body’s members, voting by simple resolution. 

But if passage of an ordinance is required, in order to establish an important policy procedure or to enact a municipal law, a more complicated process takes place. A proposed ordinance, or an amendment to one, must be “read” at more than one meeting of the board or council. 

City councils and county boards of supervisors must read such measures at three successive meetings, and then approve each by majority vote, before it goes into force. The requirement for school board policy changes is a reading at two successive meetings. All three public bodies, however, may waive the second and third readings if they wish.

In most Iowa municipalities, including Jefferson, the city’s mayor has the power to veto a resolution or ordinance within 14 days following its passage. The mayor must state his or her objections to the action in writing to the city council. The veto may be overridden by a two-thirds vote of the council, which in the case of a five-member council means four of the five members must approve the override.

I can think of only one instance in the past 50-plus years when a Jefferson mayor vetoed an action of the Jefferson City Council.

All public bodies in Iowa must certify an annual budget before the next fiscal year arrives on July 1. For city councils and county boards of supervisors the certification deadline is the end of the preceding March. For school boards the deadline is April 15. Public bodies begin working on their budgets several months in advance of their certification deadline.

County boards of supervisors serve as both the legislative and the executive branch of Iowa county governments. Small cities use their city clerk to handle the day-to-day work of the municipality; larger towns and cities generally have a city administrator or city manager, although a few designate their mayors to handle that work. School districts must employ a school superintendent as the district’s executive.

In Greene County, the members of the county board of supervisors, the two school boards, and all seven city councils serve four-year terms, with the terms of all public bodies staggered so that some members carry over prior to the next election. The Greene County Medical Center board of trustees until recently had six-year terms for its seven board members, but now those terms have also changed to four years.  

Jefferson has a four-year term for its mayor, but the other six municipalities in the county elect their mayors every two years.

Public bodies meet on a regular basis. The county supervisors meet every Monday at 8:30 a.m. in the board room on second floor of the courthouse. The two school boards in the county, and the seven city councils, hold their meetings at regular designated times each month as well – those meeting dates and times can be learned by contacting the city or school district offices.

Public attendance at most council and board meetings is usually small, unless there’s a significant controversy that the public body will be discussing. But residents are always entitled to attend a board or council meeting. As noted above, the agenda of a public body must be posted at the meeting location at least 24 hours prior to the meeting. 

Rick Morain is a reporter and columnist with the Jefferson Herald. 

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