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University of Iowa to pay $55K to settle open meetings suit

September 13, 2018

FILE - In this Sept. 3, 2015, file photo, Bruce Harreld speaks to media after he was introduced as the new University of Iowa president during a news conference in Iowa City, Iowa. The university has agreed to pay $55,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging that its 2015 presidential search violated the open meetings law. The university doesn't admit any violations in the settlement, which was made public Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018. But Iowa has agreed to abide by several transparency measures during future presidential searches. (David Scrivner/Iowa City Press-Citizen via AP, File)

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The University of Iowa has agreed to pay $55,000 to settle a lawsuit that claimed its 2015 presidential search violated the state’s open meetings law.

The university did not admit to any wrongdoing in the settlement, which was filed in district court on Wednesday. But it did agree to abide by some sunshine policies during future presidential searches, such as streaming all open portions of committee meetings online and giving the public at least three business days’ notice for meetings unless that’s “impossible.”

The deal resolves a lawsuit that was initially filed by retired professor Harold Hammond during the 2015 search, which resulted in the controversial hiring of business consultant Bruce Harreld. Retired professor John Menninger refiled the case after Hammond died in 2016.

The case alleged that the search committee members violated Iowa’s open meetings law by meeting outside of the state and improperly closing meetings.

“This settlement is the result of a good-faith effort to resolve the dispute, and we believe it is in the best interests of all involved to move forward,” said university spokeswoman Jeneane Beck.

The lawsuit argued that two committee meetings that began before 7:30 a.m. in a suburb of Chicago weren’t reasonably accessible to the public. It also challenged the committee’s rationale for closing meetings during candidate interviews and evaluations.

A university lawyer argued that the search “substantially complied” with the law, which doesn’t specifically require meetings to be held in Iowa. He said the 218-mile distance to the Illinois meeting site was closer to the university campus than some cities in Iowa.

The settlement doesn’t require future search meetings to be held in Iowa. It also still allows for portions of meetings to be closed as long as that expectation is stated on published agendas along with the reason secrecy is necessary.

Attorney Gregg Geerdes, who represented Hammond and Menninger, said he hopes the deal will mean “the public will no longer be prevented from observing public meetings which are held at inconvenient locations.”

Geerdes will be paid $55,000 in legal fees under the settlement. The case had been scheduled to go to trial in November.

Hammond and Geerdes pursued a similar lawsuit after Sally Mason was named UI president in 2007. In a 2009 settlement, the search committee admitted to violating the open meetings law in four ways, including by failing to give proper notice of meetings and discussing matters in closed session that were required to be discussed openly. The university promised then it would “take thorough and sufficient steps” to comply with the law, including additional training, and paid legal fees of $66,000.

A separate lawsuit over the 2015 search alleges that members of the Board of Regents violated the open meetings law when they secretly met with Harreld at a private business before he applied. A judge dismissed that case but an appeals court is considering whether to reinstate it.

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Follow Ryan J. Foley on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/rjfoley

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