The Illinois Press Association recently released a report on local government compliance with the Open Meetings Act. The IPA collaborated with the Citizen Advocacy Center (CAC) on the study, which looks at government compliance with the OMA's website posting requirements. You can read the report on the IPA's website here. The stated purpose of their collaboration is to "illustrate the need for meaningful enforcement provisions within Illinois' Open Meetings Act website posting provisions."
You may recall that we have reported in the past about the OMA's website posting requirements in a post called 10 Website Posting Requirements. The IPA/CAC report focuses on the first few requirements in our blog post relating to the posting of notices, agendas, and minutes. The OMA requires public bodies (including municipalities, schools, parks, libraries, townships, counties, and other government entities) to post notices, agendas, and minutes if the public body (1) has a website and (2) that website is maintained by the full-time staff of the public body.
In researching their report, the IPA and CAC conducted a random sampling of 20 counties, 298 townships, 176 school districts, and 262 municipalities to see whether they complied. They determined that 51% of the public bodies surveyed had a website. Of those public bodies (with at least one full-time employee), they determined that 77% complied with notice posting requirements, 64% with agenda posting requirements, and 54% with meeting minute posting requirements. The report concludes that compliance with website posting requirements of the sample public bodies was "poor," and that the OMA does not contain sufficient remedial measures for lack of compliance.
The problem with the study? The IPA and CAC interpreted the OMA to mean that if a public body had a full-time employee (any employee, whether or not that employee was actually staffed to maintain the website), that meant that the employee had a continuing responsibility to keep the website updated. They assumed that if a public body had any full-time employee, they triggered the OMA website posting requirements. But that is not what the OMA says.
Instead, the website posting requirement for meeting notices states as follows:
[A] public body that has a website that the full-time staff of the public body maintains shall post notice on its website of all meetings of the governing body of the public body.
Contrary to the IPA and CAC's interpretation, the language does not apply to every public body with at least one full-time employee. To the contrary, the language specifically states that the public body must have a full-time employee who maintains the website for the law to apply. Public bodies with websites often use interns, part-time staff or officials, or retain outside consultants to maintain and update their websites - in those cases, the OMA website posting requirement simply does not apply, regardless of how many full-time staff members the public body employs.
The report does acknowledge that they have taken a very liberal interpretation of the OMA and that their interpretation has not been approved by a court or the Public Access Counselor, the two entities charged with enforcement of the OMA. In determining which of the sampled public bodies had full-time employees, they filed FOIA requests asking for a list of all current full-time employees and their titles. Oddly, the FOIA request did not ask whether any of those employees actually maintained the website - a simple follow-up question that would have followed the language of the statute. Instead, the IPA/CAC assumed for purposes of analyzing the public body's websites for compliance that every public body with at least one full-time employee triggered compliance with the OMA. But, that is not what the OMA says.
The report does acknowledge that there may be another interpretation of the OMA - that the website posting requirement only applies to a public body that (1) has a website, and (2) that employs at least one full-time staff member whose duties include maintaining the website. Inexplicably, the IPA and CAC rejected that interpretation for purposes of their analysis and conclusions.
Because the report is based on an unsupported and arguably flawed interpretation of the website posting requirements, it does not provide a true report of public body compliance with the OMA. Not one court case or PAC opinion supports the IPA/CAC interpretation that all public bodies with full-time employees are obligated to comply with the website posting requirements. The OMA provides that only those public bodies that have a website that is maintained by the full-time staff are covered by these requirements. As a result, the IPA and CAC report does not appear to provide much in the way of meaningful data or conclusions on website posting compliance.
Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf
Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf