FAIRFIELD – The Jefferson County Board of Supervisors recently underwent training in open meetings law, a few months after the board violated open meetings law by going into a closed session without giving proper notice.
Jefferson County Attorney Chauncey Moulding gave a PowerPoint presentation to the board on Oct. 5 that covered open meetings law, specifically chapters 21-22 of the Iowa Code, which are known as the Sunshine Laws. The Iowa Public Information Board found that the supervisors violated Iowa Code Chapter 21 during their meeting on May 25, 2022, and required that they undergo training on that section of the code.
The meeting in question that day was a work session during which the supervisors discussed an architect and engineer’s building inspection report on the former First National Bank building located at 1900 W. Burlington Ave. in Fairfield. The county went on to purchase the building to increase its storage capacity and to possibly move county departments there.
The agenda for that day’s work session simply stated it was an “ARPA work session,” referring to the American Rescue Plan Act, money from which the county used to purchase the building. Tom Drish, who happens to be the mayor of Batavia and a member of the Cardinal school board, attended the work session because he was interested in learning about how the county planned to use its ARPA funds, because he wanted to know how they might be used in Batavia.
“I’ve been on the council for 10 years, and been an elected official for 17,” Drish said. “I’m trying to see what’s going on in the county, and not just in my own town, to help Batavia or the whole county.”
Supervisor chairman Daryn Hamilton announced that the board was going into a closed session. Drish objected, telling Hamilton that the board could not go into a closed session because that was not included in the agenda.
“I got into Daryn Hamilton a little bit, and he kept telling me nope,” Drish said.
Hamilton told The Union that the report they were discussing had to do with the structural integrity of the building.
“We didn’t want to buy something that needed a ton of work,” he said. “We did find that there needed to be a new furnace put in, so the price of a new furnace was reduced from the final sale price.”
Hamilton said the supervisors held a number of closed sessions to discuss purchasing the former bank building.
“We would be jeopardizing the discussions if we held them in a public forum,” he said. “We went into 16 closed sessions on this. It all came down to a summary from the architect that we needed for the next day so we could uphold our part of the contract. We didn’t want to take possession of the building unless everything checked out all right.”
In a letter sent to the Iowa Public Information Board in response to Drish’s complaint, Hamilton wrote that the county had just received the architect and engineer’s report at 4:24 p.m. on May 24, the day before the meeting, and that the county needed to respond by May 27. Supervisor Dee Sandquist had planned to leave that day for an overseas vacation, and could not meet the day before either, so Hamilton decided to hold the closed session during the May 25 work session. He stated in his letter that Jefferson County Attorney Chauncey Moulding was present at the meeting. He also wrote that he had asked the auditor if the supervisors could go into a closed session because the property agreement required a response by May 27, and was told they could.
Hamilton told The Union that he takes responsibility for the decision, and does not want to blame the auditor. He said he regrets the decision to go into a closed session, and that he should have called a meeting for the following day, so that the board could have given the 24-hour notice of a closed session the law requires.
“[The closed session] wasn’t on the agenda for that day, and I made a mistake in asking to do that,” he said.
Drish filed a complaint about the closed session with the Iowa Public Information Board. In his complaint, Drish stated that the board held a closed session without posting it on the agenda, that it went into closed session without a public vote, and that the board did not state a reason for holding the closed session.
The IPIB accepted the complaint on July 21. The board of supervisors and Tom Drish later came to an agreement, whereby the supervisors acknowledged that the closed session on May 25 did not follow the requirements of the Iowa Code; that the minutes and recording of the closed session will be made public; that the supervisors would conduct training on Iowa Code Chapters 21-22; and the supervisors would approve this resolution during an open meeting.
The supervisors approved that resolution on Aug. 22, and Drish approved it the following day.
Drish said he was content with the agreement, and that his main concern was for the board to go through training and to publicly acknowledge what happened.
“I don’t want to sue the county or anything like that,” he said. “My biggest thing was that I was looking for an apology during a public meeting.”
Call Andy Hallman at 641-575-0135 or email him at email@example.com