Illinois Supreme Court Rules on Open Meetings ActAuthor: Brad Stewart
Last week, the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court’s rejection of a problematic opinion from the Public Access Counselor (PAC) which found a board of education committed four violations of the Open Meetings Act (OMA). We reported on the matter involving the Springfield School District in 2014. Of particular concern was the seeming impossibility by which a local government could approve any contract without a lengthy recitation of the terms, even if the contract is made available online for public review. Also of concern is whether the use of a consent or omnibus agenda violates the OMA’s “public recital” requirements.
The pertinent facts in Board of Education of Springfield School District No. 186 v. The Attorney General of Illinois are that school board members had agreed upon and affixed their signatures (but not the dates) to a separation agreement for their superintendent. The board then voted to approve that document in open session after public notice had been given. The PAC found a violation of the Open Meetings Act (“OMA”) concluding that the board took final action in closed session.
A circuit court judge rejected the PAC’s analysis and found that there had not been an OMA violation since the final action approving the contract was taken in public session. However, the court sent the issue back to the PAC to allow it to determine if that final action in open session was preceded by information sufficient to inform the public of the nature of the business being done before the board voted to approve the separation agreement as required by the OMA. The PAC determined that the information presented at the public meeting in which the agreement was formally approved was not sufficient to meet the public recital requirements.
The circuit court reversed the PAC’s determination that the agreement was not sufficiently presented to the public. After the appellate court affirmed the circuit court’s holdings, the Illinois Supreme Court also affirmed the lower courts’ decisions. While the decision recognizes greater latitude for local government boards to present and vote on agenda items than the PAC’s interpretation, the Supreme Court made several key rulings, some of which recognize certain safeguards are still in place:
- “[A]n agenda posting standing alone cannot fulfill the public recital requirement…”
- “The language of section 2(e) [of the OMA] does not mention an explanation, the significance of the action being considered, or the attendees’ understanding. Rather…the public body must state the essence of the matter under consideration, its character, or its identity.”
- “[U]nder section 2(e) of the Open Meetings Act, a public recital must take place at the open meeting before the matter is voted upon, the recital must announce the nature of the matter under consideration, with sufficient detail to identify the particular transaction or issue, but need not provide an explanation of its terms or its significance.”
Regarding the use of consent or omnibus agendas, the Springfield decision nominally suggests that each consent or omnibus agenda item should be read aloud prior to the vote, as opposed to merely referencing the posted agenda which contains the listed consent or omnibus agenda items. While Springfield did not specifically address this issue, best practice would be to read aloud each action item on a consent or omnibus agenda prior to voting.