Iowa newspaper sues board of regents for closed meetings

IOWA — The Iowa City Press-Citizen sued the Iowa Board of Regents last month for violating state open meetings laws by holding unannounced closed sessions involving the failed search for a new University of Iowa president, but regent officials say they did not violate any laws.

The lawsuit, filed in December, contends the regents met in closed session without notice several times from Nov. 10 to Nov. 17, 2006 to discuss matters that Iowa law requires to be conducted in public. The regents claim it was all one meeting.

Jim Lewers, managing editor of the Press-Citizen, said the board has not yet responded to the lawsuit, and he believes the board’s action “jeopardizes open meetings in the state of Iowa.”

“Any school district or public board could use this tactic,” Lewers said. “I think this tactic is no good and it has to be stopped.”

Iowa Board of Regents President Michael Gartner, who has also been editor of The Des Moines Register and president of NBC News, said the board “conformed with all aspects of the law,” because notice of the closed session was given during the meeting on Nov. 9, 2006.

Iowa law has no set time limit for closed sessions and allows closed sessions when discussing personnel matters. Gartner said the meeting was to “discuss a personnel issue” and that no action was taken during the closed meeting.

The meeting, which the regents claim lasted until Nov. 17, 2006, remained closed to the public because some of the presidential candidates did not want their identities revealed, Gartner said.

“I wouldn’t have minded disclosing them, but the candidates didn’t want them disclosed,” Gartner said.

A regent-appointed search committee spent seven months attempting to find a new president, but the board rejected all nominees and dissolved the group after the closed session in question ended on Nov. 17, 2006. A new search began in December 2006.

Gary Steinke, executive director of the Iowa Board of Regents, declined to comment on when the regents would respond to the lawsuit, but said the board complied with the law and Roberts Rules of Order.

“We’ll defend ourselves vigorously,” Steinke said.

In addition to discouraging other public boards in Iowa from conducting rolling meetings, the lawsuit also seeks to fine each regent and have judicial review of the closed meeting’s tapes and minutes to ensure what board members discussed was appropriate for the closed session, according to Press-Citizen reports.

Kathleen Richardson, executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and Drake University journalism professor, said there is debate as to whether the rolling meetings actually violated the law.

“You could argue it does violate the law and the process they used violates the spirit of the law,” she said.

The lawsuit could have been avoided if the board was more open with its search, Lewers said.

“The law is the law and we have this law for a good reason, and that is to keep government open,” Lewers said. “If they felt like the law was going to jeopardize privacy, then they should have figured out a better way.”

Richardson said more public bodies in Iowa have opted to hold new personnel hires behind closed doors. Because of the media attention surrounding the failed presidential search at the University of Iowa, state legislators and the public have started to discuss possible reform to the state’s open records laws, she said.

The lawsuit is pending in Polk County District Court.

By Jared Taylor, SPLC staff writer