In Nolte v. Brown Memorial Library, No. 00-1045, slip op. (Iowa App. March 27, 2002), the Iowa Court of Appeals invalidated a real estate contract that the Dumont library board had entered into because the Dumont city council did not approve the contract. The basis of the court’s ruling was that Iowa Code section 392.3 provides that contracts entered into by city agencies must be approved by the city council unless the ordinance establishing the agency states otherwise. In Dumont, the city had adopted an ordinance that required the city council to make or authorize all contracts and that specifically required contracts to be “in writing and approved by the council, or expressly authorized by ordinance or resolution adopted by the Council” for the contract to be binding on the city. See Dumont City Ordinance section 17.02(4) (1993). Dumont had adopted a library ordinance that is the same as most library ordinances in Iowa. The Court of Appeals reviewed Dumont’s library ordinance and determined that nothing in the library ordinance constituted “express language stating that (1) the library board’s contracts are not subject to review and approval by the council, or that (2) the board is authorized to enter into contracts.” Nolte, slip op. at 5.
Although to date the decision remains unpublished, it raises questions about whether local library boards in fact have as much independence from their city councils as previously thought. However, because the decision was based heavily on the language of Dumont’s ordinance section 17.02(4), the ultimate impact of the decision may be limited if other cities’ ordinances regarding council approval of contracts is different than the language of Dumont’s ordinance. Some people have argued that the impact of the decision is limited to real estate contracts.
Have your library director consult with your city attorney about whether it is wise for the library to change the way it conducts business in light of this decision. Neither Iowa Library Services nor the Iowa Attorney General’s office can give you legal advice about this issue.