Governmental bodies should conduct votes in a manner that ensures the public is informed and officials are accountable.
When governmental bodies meet, final action on any issue always must be taken in open session. But how accountable are the individual members of these bodies for the votes they cast? Can a citizen who attends a meeting identify which members voted, and how they voted? How does Iowa’s Open Meetings Law help provide accountability to the public for votes in open session?
Here are principles that should be followed to assure accountability to the public for the vote of each member of a governmental body on each issue:
- Never use secret ballots. The vote of each member must always be cast in public. This is true even when the vote constitutes the final action on a matter considered in closed session.
- Always take a roll call vote to go into closed session. Roll call votes are required (Iowa Code sec. 21.5(2)) to go into closed session and may be useful in other situations.
- Be careful about using voice votes – “all in favor say aye, all opposed say nay.” Iowa law says “the vote of each member present shall be made public at the open session,” in addition to being recorded in minutes. (Iowa Code sec. 21.3.) With voice votes it may be hard for observers to tell who voted, or how they voted. The Attorney General’s Office advises governmental bodies to avoid confusion. First, the chair should clarify who voted when the result is announced, or if some members remained silent. Second, use a voice vote only if a vote is unanimous. Unless a voice vote is unanimous, the public may not be able to determine who was speaking and how each member voted. If in doubt, take a roll call vote.
Remember: the public is entitled to know how each member of a governmental body votes at a public session. The minutes of a meeting will reflect the vote later -- but minutes are no substitute for providing accountability during the open meeting.
Sunshine advisories are a general resource for government officials and citizens on Iowa's public records and open meetings laws – our "sunshine” laws. Local officials should obtain legal advice from their counsel, such as the city or county attorney.
The Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB) is an independent board that the Iowa Legislature established specifically to address open meetings and open records-related matters. The IPIB provides information to the public and governmental entities on "sunshine" issues.
The IPIB, which has jurisdiction and authority to investigate and enforce Iowa's open meetings and open records laws, enables citizens to file a complaint if they believe that someone is violating these laws.
Citizens who have inquiries or complaints about public records or open meetings should contact the Iowa Public Information Board. Iowa Public Information Board.
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Updated December 1, 2014