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October 1, 2003

Closed Sessions: Who's Left Inside When the Doors Close?

Government bodies often conduct open meetings that include a closed session. Closed sessions are lawful, but just who is allowed to remain when the doors close? Are only members of the government body permitted in the room? Can they meet privately with their attorney? Is it necessary to close the session at all if no members of the public are present? Can the government body just ask the public to step out of the room so the members can talk in private?

Here are basic principles on who may attend closed sessions:

  • Closed sessions may include only people who are necessary to the matter under consideration. Government bodies may meet privately with legal counsel to discuss litigation that is pending or imminent, if disclosure would likely prejudice or disadvantage the body. Other individuals, including government staff, may be included in a closed session discussion as needed -- for example, to present confidential investigative records to the body.
  • The public may not be asked to leave an open session. Iowa's Open Meetings Law does not allow public officials to simply ask members of the public to step outside during an open session. Government bodies may close meetings as provided in the law (Sec. 21.5), but when a body is in open session, it is never appropriate for the body to ask citizens to leave or for the body to take a break so that a quorum of the body can talk in private.
  • Open sessions remain open -- even when no one else is in the room. Unless a government body goes through the proper steps to close a session, the meeting remains open, and the confidentiality that attaches to closed session materials does not apply (Sec. 21.5.) This means that materials for the closed session, such as agenda packets, minutes or tape recordings, will be open records subject to examination and copying.

Remember: clearing the room for a closed session only may be done within the law. The public cannot be excluded from an open session in order to facilitate a private discussion among members of a governmental body. Until the session actually closes, the public stays.

Here are some links to "Sunshine Advisories" on other topics related to closed meetings:

July 2002 - Closed Governmental Meetings -- Know the Nuts and Bolts for Closed Sessions
April 2003 - Recording What Goes on Behind Closed Doors
November 2002 - Retreats and "Working Sessions" are Open Meetings

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.

Wallace Building, Third Floor
502 East 9th Street
Des Moines, IA 50319


Phone: 515-725-1781

Updated December 1, 2014

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