Higher education

Suit against regents tests open meetings law

Attorney asserts they used 'shuttle diplomacy' to consider Harreld hire

The Supreme Court courtroom in the new Judicial Branch Building in Des Moines.(Gazette file photo)
The Supreme Court courtroom in the new Judicial Branch Building in Des Moines.(Gazette file photo)

IOWA CITY — A Des Moines lawyer this week said he expects the issue of private meetings involving public officials to again end up at the Iowa Supreme Court after the state’s attorney general asked a judge to dismiss his client’s lawsuit against the Board of Regents.

The question, according to attorney Gary Dickey, is whether a series of meetings that each involve less than a majority of a governing body’s members constitutes a gathering subject to open meetings laws. Or, he said, whether the use of agents or proxies going between such meetings establishes a majority and violates Iowa Code.

In May, Dickey filed a lawsuit on behalf of University of Iowa graduate and former UI employee Gerhild Krapf accusing the regents — naming five of its nine members — of meeting in “close temporal proximity to each other” with then UI presidential candidate Bruce Harreld.

“The open meetings requirements apply to all gatherings at which there is deliberation upon any matter within the scope of the policy-making duties of a governmental body by a majority of its members, including gatherings attended by members of a governmental body through agents or proxies,” the lawsuit said.

Dickey argued that even though the regent meetings with Harreld occurred at different times and never involved more than two board members at a time, Harreld functioned as a sort of diplomat for board President Bruce Rastetter, going between regents who were evaluating his candidacy.

In a motion filed this week, Iowa Attorney General Thomas Miller asked a judge to dismiss the case, stating Krapf is not the first person to argue that serial meetings of less than a majority can constitute a gathering subject to open meetings law.

“The Iowa Supreme Court has already rejected that argument (twice),” according to the state’s motion.

But the high court, in addressing the issue in a separate case earlier this year, came down on the side of openness — finding the law prohibits a government body majority from obtaining information from each other through the use of proxies.

“That opinion talks about shuttle diplomacy — the go-between of members,” Dickey said. “And that appears to be what happened here.”

The state in its request for dismissal disagreed, saying, “No more than two regents met with Harreld at once.”

“And this is not the case … in which Rastetter or anyone else is alleged to have sent an ‘agent’ to any of the meetings to pass on Rastetter’s messages,” according to the motion.

Regardless of what the trial judge decides, Dickey said he expects the case to end up with the high court.

“If we prevail, they will appeal,” he said. “If they prevail, we will appeal. I think both sides are planning to appeal it to the highest level.”

Krapf’s lawsuit came nine months after UI professor emeritus Harold Hammond filed a similar suit in Johnson County asking the court to void the presidential search committee’s actions. That trial is set for next March.

Harreld in September will mark the one-year anniversary of his controversial hire.

The former businessman executive with no academic administrative experience was chosen Sept. 3 to replace retired UI President Sally Mason despite widespread criticism of his candidacy.


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