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Monday, November 18, 2019

PAC Provides Guidance on "General Subject Matter" for Agenda Items

The PAC issued its 12th binding opinion last week finding a municipality in violation of OMA for not identifying the general subject matter of an ordinance that was voted on at a city council meeting agenda. PAC Op. 19-012.

A complaint was filed with the PAC after an August 20, 2019 city council meeting where the council voted on an ordinance that increased permit application fees. The complainant argued that the agenda was not sufficiently descriptive to provide the public with advance notice of the general subject matter of the ordinance to be voted on, as required by section 2.02(c), which requires as follows:
Any agenda required under this Section shall set forth the general subject matter of any resolution or ordinance that will be the subject of final action at the meeting. 5 ILCS 120/2.02(c).
The PAC reviewed the city council's meeting agenda for the August 20th meeting, including the questioned agenda item. The agenda stated as follows for the ordinance in question:
d.  Consider and act on Ordinance 19-11 to Amend Section 33-4-4(F) 
The PAC analyzed the OMA requirement of "general subject matter," acknowledging that the OMA does not define that phrase and that there is no commonly understood meaning for the phrase. Finding the phrase ambiguous, the PAC reviewed the statute's legislative history, finding that one senator stated that the provision was intended to allow people who follow their units of local government to "know what they're going to be acting upon." 

The city argued that the item was descriptive enough because the public could consult the section that was proposed to be amended to determine the general nature of the matters. The PAC disagreed, finding that it wasn't clear that the section reference was to the city code, and in any event, the agenda itself needs to identify the general subject matter without the public having to decipher it themselves. As a result, the PAC determined that the agenda was not sufficiently descriptive under the OMA. 

It is worth pointing out that the PAC reviewed other items on the agenda and acknowledged that these other items did identify the subject matter of the item to be voted on. These included:
a. Consider and act on Resolution 19-07 Closed Session Minutes
b. Consider and act on Resolution 19-08 Authorizing the Destruction of Closed Meetings Sessions audio recording.
c. Consider and act on Resolution 19-06 Council Resolution of Support for CBD Grant
Based on this opinion, the city council could have added "....of the City Code regarding permit application fees" to the end of agenda item (d) and that would appear to satisfy the PAC's interpretation of 2.02(c)'s requirement that the item set forth the general subject matter of the resolution or ordinance. The PAC specifically noted that the amount of the increase in fees did not need to be identified on the agenda.

This opinion could provide valuable guidance to public bodies on what "general subject matter" means when describing agenda items. Simply stating that an ordinance is amending a particular section is not enough without identifying what is being amended and a brief description of the subject matter of the amendment.


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