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Sunshine Advisory Bulletin

A Bulletin on Iowa Open Meetings and Public Records Laws
By Attorney General Tom Miller -- October 2006

Handling New Ideas at Public Meetings

Only emergencies trump notice and agenda requirements.

Governmental bodies generally must give notice at least 24 hours prior to a meeting, and must include the tentative agenda. (Iowa Open Meetings Law, IA. Code sec. 21.4.) The public relies on the tentative agenda to know what matters will be discussed at the meeting. (See March 2002 Sunshine Advisory, Advance Agendas for Public Meetings.)

But, what if a new idea comes up in the course of discussion while the meeting is underway? How much room does the law allow for expanded discussion when a tentative agenda has been issued?

Unless an emergency requires immediate action, only matters included on the tentative agenda may be discussed at a meeting. (See March 2004 Advisory, Emergency Meetings: Can Good Cause Justify Less Notice?)
Governmental bodies should apply these two rules of thumb to determine what discussion or action is permitted under the scope of items on a tentative agenda:

  • Ordinary Meaning: Words in the tentative agenda should be measured by the meaning to a “typical citizen” or member of the news media. Do the words convey what topics will be discussed at the meeting?
  • Sufficient Dietal:The sufficiency of the detail on the tentative agenda should be viewed in the context of surrounding events. Did the agenda give the public a full opportunity to participate? Factors in assessing the opportunity for participation may include whether the topic had been on a previous agenda and whether the meeting was widely publicized.

Remember: Spirited discussion may trigger exciting new ideas. But public bodies must be sure that the tentative agenda provides reasonable notice to the public in ordinary terms and in sufficient detail. Rarely, and only if a real emergency exists, should a body discuss and vote on a matter not included on the tentative agenda.


Citizens who have inquiries or complaints about public records or open meetings may call the Iowa Citizens' Aide/Ombudsman Office -- toll-free at 888-IA-OMBUD (888-426-6283.)

"Sunshine Advisory" bulletins provide information on Iowa's public records and open meetings laws -- our "Sunshine Laws." The bulletins are a resource for public officials and citizens. Local officials should obtain legal advice from their counsel, such as the city or county attorney.

Iowa Attorney General's Office: Hoover Building, Des Moines, Iowa 50319.

On the Web: www.IowaAttorneyGeneral.org.