During the campaign and election season some cities are approached about the use of city buildings, facilities and grounds for political events. Whether hosting a city candidate forum leading up to the city elections or allowing a caucus event to be held at a city building, city officials need to be aware of the rules regarding such use of city property.
Use of City Facilities or Grounds for Campaign Events
Code of Iowa chapter 68A generally prohibits the use of public resources for political purposes. However, certain exceptions to the law allow city buildings, facilities and other property to be used for campaign events.
Iowa Administrative Code 351-5.5(2) allows “public forums” to be used for political purposes. The rule explains that “any public resource that is open to a member of the general public to use for other purposes may be used for political purposes.” Rooms at a recreation center or the city library are common examples that are open for use by members of the public and can therefore be used for political purposes.
In addition, the Administrative Code allows a governmental resource to be used for a political purpose if the governmental entity is reimbursed and the use “furthered a public interest.” This provision would allow a candidate to rent a facility that is not typically available to the public as long as they reimbursed the governmental entity. Information regarding cities charging fees for the use of rooms or facilities can be found below.
City Candidate Forums
The Administrative Code in 351-5.5(3) explicitly allows cities and other governmental entities to host candidate debates or forums as long as at least two candidates seeking the same office are invited to attend the event. The rule also allows the distribution of campaign materials on governmental property during the forum or debate.
Many cities across the state host or coordinate such forums as they help promote the upcoming city elections and encourage discussion in the community over who will represent them on the city council. Cities that are planning to host candidate debates or forums need to ensure they invite all candidates to such events and should treat each candidate equally throughout the election process.
Campaign Events for Partisan Elections
City officials are often hesitant to work with partisan campaigns and candidates given the laws prohibiting the use of public resources for political purposes and since city offices in Iowa are non-partisan. However, if done properly, a city can allow partisan campaign events to occur on city property.
Regarding caucus meetings, cities need to be mindful of Code of Iowa Section 43.93, which says each precinct caucus shall be held in a building that is publicly owned or in a building that is available for public meetings from time to time. The law goes on to say “the person having control of a building supported by taxation under the laws of this state shall make available the space necessary to conduct the caucus without charge during presidential election years.” As such, cities may allow a presidential caucus event to be held in one of their buildings, but cannot charge a rental fee.
Candidate events are a different matter, and each city must determine what it is comfortable allowing. Many cities take the approach of treating an interested candidate as any other member of the public – if a candidate wants to use a room at the library, a park shelter or other public facility for an event then they must submit any required forms and pay any rental fees. Cities are encouraged to review room rental policies and rates and consider addressing the use by candidates.
Charging Fees for the Use of a City Building or Facility
Cities may charge candidates or campaigns for the use of city facilities. Again, the city needs to ensure they treat the candidate or campaign the same as any other person or group for the use of a “public forum.” If a conference room or park shelter is available to the general public with a rental rate of $50 per hour and requires a $100 deposit then a candidate or campaign must pay the same rate. Or if a room at the recreation center is available on a first come-first save basis, but is free, then a candidate could reserve the room if they follow the registration rules.
Rooms or facilities that are not considered “public forums” as defined in the Administrative Code can be used for political purposes, but the city must charge for the actual costs of the use of the facility.
Megan Tooker, executive director for the Iowa Ethics & Campaign Disclosure Board (IECDB), assisted with the content of this page. The IECDB is an independent state agency that receives campaign disclosure reports and administers campaign and ethics laws found in Code of Iowa chapters 68A and 68B as well as applicable rules in the Iowa Administrative Code. Cities are encouraged to contact the IECDB for additional information, including many advisory opinions on this topic.