Iowa’s school board members’ and other elected officials’ use of electronic media raises issues about whether important discussions and deliberations are taking place online instead of at a public meeting.
Iowa’s open meetings law defines a meeting as a gathering in person or by electronic means, formal or informal, of a majority of the members of a governmental body where there is deliberation or action upon any matter within the scope of the governmental body’s policy-making duties. Iowa Code §21.2.2.
Meetings shall not include a gathering of members of a governmental body for purely ministerial or social purposes when there is no discussion of policy …. Iowa Code §21.2.2. This means elected officials can get together over cocktails or lattes so long as they are not discussing business.
In general, meetings of elected officials are to be open to the public unless there is a specific exception and even then, nothing requires a meeting to be closed. Electronic meetings should only be held ….where such a meeting in person is impossible or impractical …. Iowa Code §21.8.1. For example, there is a severe snowstorm rendering travel to a physical meeting very difficult.
There is no language in Iowa’s Open Meetings law that provides that elected officials’ participation in Facebook is not an electronic meeting so it behooves elected officials to err on the side of caution. The Iowa Code indeed seems to recognize and prohibit such online informality by stating that …all actions and discussions at meetings of governmental bodies, whether formal or informal shall be conducted and executed in open session. Iowa Code §21.3. And it is certainly possible that a majority of elected board members would easily belong to the same electronic forum, perhaps even posting on a forum anonymously.
So what good common sense practices should elected officials observe about Facebook?
I. Do not comment about government business on a Facebook page if a majority of the elected government body are friends as this might constitute an electronic meeting subject to Iowa’s open meetings law. If one elected official of a majority is commenting and others are participating as silent friends, this is no different than when one official at a meeting is speaking and other members are listening.
II. A Facebook “like” can now be considered a form of speech or endorsement so do not “like” any matter within the scope of the governmental body’s policy making duties. Iowa Code §21.2.2
III. Even if a majority of the elected body does not participate in a Facebook page or group, an elected official should carefully consider his or her participation in the same and should always remember that he or she does not know if a majority of fellow board members are participating anonymously.
IV. A board member should always remember that electronic forums can be biased towards one viewpoint and that his or her effectiveness as a board member may be adversely affected if they are seen as biased.
V. Facebook is not available to all–perhaps best of all, a board member should do his or her work at a truly public meeting.