Last week, the Illinois Supreme Court determined that the Public Access Counselor's office of the Illinois Attorney General was wrong when it found a public body in violation of the Open Meetings Act in connection with the approval of a separation agreement. Board of Ed. of Springfield Sch. Dist. 186 v. Attorney General of Illinois, 2017 IL 120343.
In its decision, the Court interpreted language in the OMA's requiring that final action be "preceded by a public recital of the nature of the matter being considered and other information that will inform the public of the business being conducted." In sum, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected the PAC's interpretation of that provision to require a public body to explain the significance of its action prior to taking a vote. The Court also rejected the PAC's interpretation that the public body must summarize the "key terms" of the item being voted on, finding no such language in the statute. Instead, the Court held that section 2(e) of the OMA simply requires a public body to announce the matter under consideration and identify the particular transaction or issue prior to taking a vote on that matter.
We reported on the PAC opinions finding the District in violation here, here, and here. We also reported on the appellate court ruling overturning the Attorney General's opinion here. The fact of this case are below:
The Board of Education met in several closed sessions to discuss a separation agreement with the superintendent of schools. At one of these closed sessions, several board members signed the agreement. At that same meeting, the board attorney explained that the agreement would have to be publicly approved at an open meeting. That approval took place on March 5, 2013. The agenda for that meeting described the agenda item as "Approval of a Resolution regarding the Separation Agreement and Release between Superintendent Dr. Walter Milton, Jr., and the Board of Education." The District's website included a copy of the resolution, and the separation agreement, both of which were available for public inspection on March 1st - 4 days before the meeting. At the March 5th meeting, the Board president introduced the item. Two board members discussed the item, and then it was approved by a 6 to 1 vote.
A reporter filed a request for review with the PAC office alleging multiple violations of the OMA, including that the board members signed the agreements in closed session, that the agenda item was not descriptive enough, that the board failed to adequately inform the public of the action being taken when it approved the separation agreement, and that it failed to summarize discussions about the agreement. The PAC found the Board in violation of the OMA in several opinions, and the Board appealed to the courts.
The circuit court first reversed the PAC finding that the Board took final action in closed session when it signed the separation agreement in closed session, holding that the final action was actually taken on March 5th, when the Board approved the agreement in open session.
Second, the circuit court reversed the PAC finding that the website posting was inadequate and the Board's "explanation" of the item was inadequate, holding that the agenda was posted 4 days prior to the meeting, the Board provided links on its website to the resolution and agreement, and that there is no requirement under the OMA to explain the significance of an action. The PAC then appealed, first to the appellate court (which upheld the circuit court's rulings) and then to the Illinois Supreme Court.
As noted above, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the Board of Education's approval of the separation agreement. First, the Court determined that the Board properly voted on the agreement at the open meeting on March 5, 2013, and that the signing of the agreement in closed session was not "final action." Second, the Court determined that the Board President's announcement of the item prior to taking a vote satisfied section 2(e)'s requirement of a "public recital." The Court rejected the PAC's argument that this section requires a public body to summarize the "key terms" of a matter prior to voting on it.
Two interesting notes from this decision. First, the Court did not base its ruling on the fact that the public could access the agreement and resolution prior to the meeting on the Board's website - instead, the Court determined that the "public recital" requirement was satisfied by the Board President's announcement of the agenda item and reading of the name of the resolution. Second, the Court noted that the OMA does not prohibit a board from taking a preliminary vote at a closed session, so long as the final action is taken in open session.
Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf