The sudden placement of City Administrator Andy Morris on administrative leave raises serious questions about the city council’s adherence to Iowa’s open meetings law.
Both Morris and City Councilman Marc Roe confirmed Morris was placed on administrative leave following Tuesday’s council session. There was no vote on such a move at that meeting or any prior session.
The issue is not whether the council can remove a city administrator. The council is well within its rights to do so at any time, for any reason, or for no reason. As Ottumwa’s elected representatives the council has final say on the administrator’s job retention, and that power is near absolute.
What is also absolute is the state’s requirement that the council conduct its business in public view. A debate on the termination of a city administrator can take place in closed session. But the public must still be notified of any such debate, and no vote on such a move may be made without being in open session.
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.” Discussions on whether the city administrator should be retained indisputably fall within that definition.
The law also demands that “Final action by any governmental body on any matter shall be taken in an open session unless some other provision of the Code expressly permits such actions to be taken in closed session.” It’s difficult to reconcile the fact Morris has been placed on administrative leave with the fact there has been no open vote on the decision.
Roe’s comment to the Courier that the council has “been talking about it over the past few days” is troubling. He explicitly said there has been no vote on termination and, when pressed, said there had been no vote on placing Morris on administrative leave.
It’s difficult to see how such discussions, if they involved two or more other council members, would not violate the state’s open meetings law. At best they appear designed to avoid alerting the public to a significant development in their government.
Occasional tensions between elected officials and the people they hire to run the city’s professional staff are not surprising. Nor is a certain amount of turnover in a city administrator’s office. The administrator’s responsibility is to offer sometimes unpleasant information or to rein in actions that may skirt the edges of the law, and people in power across all eras have a tendency to kill the messenger when unwelcome advice arrives.
And, as we said, the city council is well within its rights to remove Morris if it deems such a move in the city’s best interests. What concerns us is how such a move could take place without any public vote, and apparently take place immediately after a public session at which such a vote could easily be taken.
The council members must answer several questions. The public should know who was involved in the discussions Roe referenced. The public should know when these discussions took place and how.
The public must know whether the council violated the state’s open meetings laws.