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December 1, 2006

Can governmental bodies hold hearings in closed session?

Yes, sometimes -- but only if expressly authorized by statute.

The work of governmental bodies is broad and varied. Sometimes, they conduct hearings – and that may bring up “open meetings” questions. When a quorum of a governmental body holds a hearing, the body is “meeting” under Iowa’s Open Meetings Law (Iowa Code ch. 21). How does the Open Meetings Law apply to hearings? Can a governmental body conduct a hearing in closed session? What about deliberations? Can a governmental body decide a case behind closed doors?

Like all meetings, hearings can be conducted in closed session only when expressly authorized by statute.

Here are some closed-session guidelines to apply when a governmental body is conducting a hearing or conducting deliberations on the outcome of a hearing:

? Iowa Code Ch. 21 provides only limited authority to close a hearing: Chapter 21 itself authorizes a closed session only for hearings to suspend or expel a student, unless an open session is requested by the student, or a parent, or guardian. See Iowa Code sec. 21.5(1)(e). Chapter 21 authorizes a closed session otherwise only to discuss a decision to be rendered in a contested case, a type of hearing conducted only by state agencies. See Iowa Code sec. 17A.2(5), 21.5(1)(f).

? Check other statutes for specific authority to close a hearing: Other statutes may allow a governmental body to close a hearing. For example, most professional licensing boards can hold disciplinary hearings against licensees in closed session if requested by the licensee. See Iowa Code sec. 272C.6(1). Or, a school board can conduct a “private hearing” on the termination of a teacher’s or administrator’s contract, if the teacher or administrator requests a hearing in writing. See Iowa Code sec. 279.15.

Remember: Governmental bodies subject to Iowa’s Open Meetings Law must hold hearings and deliberations in open session, unless a closed hearing or closed session is authorized under an express provision of law – either in Chapter 21 or in another statute.

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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Phone: 515-725-1781

Updated December 1, 2014

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