We don't get a lot of guidance from Illinois courts on compliance with the Open Meetings Act (OMA) (most of our guidance has come from the Public Access Counselor) but today's case is an exception. Allen v. Clark County Park District Bd of Commissioners, 2016 IL App (4th) 150963. This case is an important one for all public bodies to understand, as it interprets the OMA's "public recital" requirement prior to taking final action on agenda items.
Here, two individuals alleged that the Clark County Park Board violated the OMA by failing to provide a sufficient explanation prior to voting on two items on the agenda (approval of a lease and approval of revised covenants). According to the court, when the Board considered each of the challenged agenda items, a motion was made, seconded, and then a vote taken. No discussion took place on either item, and the documents were not made available to the public prior to the meeting. Moreover, when a member of the public asked the Board to describe what they had just voted on, the chair of the meeting responded "They gotta get recorded at the courthouse first. I'm sorry." Another commissioner stated "it's just a formality."
The following day, the individuals filed a law suit against the Clark County Park District. The complaint included three claims: (1) the agenda was insufficient to set forth the subject matter of the two items; (2) the Board improperly considered the two items in closed session; and (3) the Board failed to explain the nature of the two items before voting on them.
The trial court dismissed the case in its entirety. Plaintiffs then appealed the trial court's dismissal of the third allegation - that the Board failed to explain what was being considered prior to taking final action.
The appellate court first looked at the language in section 2.02(e) of the OMA which requires a public body to make a "public recital of the nature of the matter being considered and other information that will inform the public of the business being conducted" prior to taking final action (voting) on an agenda item. The court acknowledged that there was little guidance on "precisely what standard of specificity is required of a public recital." In this case, however, the court found the Board's actions insufficient, based on the "key-terms" rule that had been established by the PAC in a 2014 opinion.
Applying the PAC's "key-terms" rule to the facts of this case, the court found that the public recital did not provide the public with any of the key terms of the lease agreement or covenants, (i.e., what was being leased, who was leasing it, how much the Park District would be compensated for the lease).
Acknowledging its earlier decision in Board of Education of Springfield Sch. Dist. No. 186 v. Attorney General, the court noted that its holding in this case does not mean that the public body must provide a detailed explanation about the significance or impact of the proposed final action. (We reported on the Springfield case here). However, the court concluded that a public body cannot provide no details at all in taking final action, as the court found in this case.
At the end of the opinion, the court acknowledged that the Illinois Supreme Court granted leave to appeal in the Springfield case. That case may provide public bodies with further guidance on how to interpret and apply the "public recital" provision of the OMA. Until then, public bodies might want to consider how this case affects its own final actions and whether they are providing sufficient information about an item prior to a vote. That may involve some explanation by the chair prior to a vote, or engaging in some discussion, or in ensuring that documents are provided to the public so they can understand what is being voted on (as happened in the Springfield case).
Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf