CORONAVIRUS

Iowa cities grapple with public meetings amid pandemic

State board provides guidance on electronic meetings

The Cedar Rapids City Council - and city councils and county boards in Iowa - are grappling with how to conduct legally
The Cedar Rapids City Council — and city councils and county boards in Iowa — are grappling with how to conduct legally required open meetings in a time when large gatherings are being discouraged. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

The global coronavirus pandemic presents challenges for governmental bodies legally required to conduct their business in open meetings at a time when public gatherings across the country are being canceled to limit the virus’ spread.

In Cedar Rapids, all “non-essential” public meetings are being canceled until March 31, but city council meetings, where policy decisions and public hearings occur, remain on schedule.

In Des Moines, the city has canceled a number of public meetings, the Des Moines Register reported.

“City council meetings are critical to providing essential city service and will continue to be held, following appropriate legal requirements and keeping public health interests in mind,” said Maria Johnson, spokesperson for the city of Cedar Rapids.

As of Friday, Iowa City and Marion city officials had made no changes to their public meeting schedule, and the Linn County supervisors have a standing agenda item for COVID-19 updates as a part of their regularly scheduled Monday meetings.

Cities are continuing critical services like police and fire.

Johnson County has 14 of the 17 reported cases of COVID-19 in Iowa, while Carroll, Pottawattamie and Harrison counties each have one case, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.

The Iowa Public Information Board is advising electronic meetings as a way governmental bodies can continue to hold public meetings without compromising safety.

WHAT THE LAW SAYS

Iowa law allows electronic meeting when “there are valid concerns that an in-person meeting is ‘impossible or impractical,’ ” according to the board, noting all of the following steps must be followed.

• Public access to the conversation of the meeting must be available.

• Proper notice of the meeting must identify the place from which the communication originates or where public access is provided.

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• Minutes must be kept and must include a statement explaining why an in-person meeting was impossible or impractical.

• If an emergency meeting with less than 24 hours notice is held, as much notice as reasonably possible should still be provided and the cause for holding the meeting without 24 hours notice must be stated in the minutes.

“The news release makes clear that even when there are concerns about potential exposure to coronavirus, the public meetings law still must be followed,” Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said in an email.

WHAT IS ESSENTIAL?

The situation remains fluid as public officials grapple with what is and isn’t “essential” and the best course for transparency, abiding by the law and not making matters worse.

In Cedar Rapids, the agenda for Monday’s public safety and youth service committee meeting was released Friday morning but canceled by the afternoon.

The Civil Service Commission at 7 a.m. Monday remains on schedule as do the city council and Long Term Planning Commission meetings on March 24.

“Each meeting is being evaluated individually at this point in time,” Johnson said.

Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz described “non-essential” as gatherings or meetings not requiring time-sensitive action, such as an open house about 2020 construction projects, an adult resource expo at the central fire station and city commission or committee meetings without critical or time-sensitive agenda items.

Several of those have been canceled.

The agenda for the March 24 City Council meeting is being limited to only essential items to allow “critical business to continue, while postponing non-urgent agenda items in order to avoid drawing a large number of citizens for public comment,” Pomeranz said.

The city’s workforce — about 1,400 people — was asked not to attend non-city-sponsored large business meetings and gatherings, such as neighborhood meetings, board meetings or conferences, that they might normally attend for work.

IOWA CITY, MARION

In Iowa City, City Manager Geoff Fruin said no changes are imminent as to how the city conducts its open meetings, but city staff is allowing for the possibility things could change by the next council meeting March 24.

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“We are making contingency plans for that scenario … which would include moving to electronic meetings and soliciting input in some other fashion,” Fruin said. “At this point, we don’t have those plans finalized and don’t know if we would ever implement them.”

Fruin said all city-run facilities are making some changes, such as reducing programming and outreach, but remain open. Most event organizers that use city facilities to host meetings and other gatherings have been calling them off, Fruin said.

Marion officials said they will keep public spaces available for community use unless otherwise mandated by the state. Routine cleaning at all city buildings has increased.

Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

Gazette reporters Grace King and Lee Hermiston contributed to this report.

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