The Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor (PAC) issued two non-binding opinions in July related to the Open Meetings Act (OMA). In one opinion, the PAC found that a school district did not violate the OMA when it directed a community member to stop speaking when she exceeded the school board’s public comment time limit, became uncivil, and refused to comply when it had police remove her from the meeting. In another opinion, the PAC found that projecting written information about business being conducted on screens during a board meeting does not fulfill the requirement that public body’s publicly recite the nature of and provide other information that will inform the public of the business being conducted before taking final action.
PAC Opinion Number 2015 PAC 35101
In the first opinion, issued July 13, 2015, a community member was prevented from commenting on a specific topic at a school board meeting and subsequently was removed from the meeting by a police officer when she began acting uncivilly and did not comply with the directives to cease speaking. The community member was allowed to address the Board beyond the three minutes allotted under the Board’s public comment policy, but then the Board President directed the community member to stop speaking. When she refused and became increasingly uncivil, the Board had police remove the community member from the building. The Board defended its actions based on a need to maintain decorum.
The PAC found no OMA violation based on the Board’s actions. The PAC noted that Section 2.06(g) of the OMA (5 ILCS 120/2.06(g)) confers a right to members of the public to address public bodies, but that such right is subject to reasonable rules established and recorded by the public body to promote public participation. The OMA found that the Board’s policy limiting public comment to three minutes unless an individual requests more time in advance to discuss an unusual matter were such rules. Moreover, the PAC found that the community member here was allowed to address the Board (indeed for more than three minutes) before being asked to yield, and that she had not requested the right to speak longer per the Board rules. As such, the PAC concluded that there was insufficient evidence to determine that the Board violated Section 2.06(g) of the OMA.
PAC Opinion Number 2011 PAC 16114
In the second opinion, issued July 24, 2015, a Board of Trustees of a community college took final action to extend the college President’s contract. Prior to the meeting, the Board published an agenda that referred to the extension of the President’s contract that was titled “Personnel Actions.” Prior to taking action, the Board President read aloud “Ratify Personnel Actions,” and the Board projected general information about the contract extension onto large screens in the meeting room. The Board did not verbally announce which individuals or positions were affected by the personnel actions, there was no indication that the action being considered was the President’s contract, and the members of the public were not advised of either the general nature of the personnel changes being considered or the key terms of the proposed extension of the President’s contract.
The challengers to the Board’s actions argued that the agenda was insufficient to provide advance notice and that the Board failed to comply with the OMA requirement to recite the nature of the matter and provide other information that informed the public of the business being conducted prior to taking final action.
The PAC found that the action of renewing the President’s contract was “germane to” the agenda item “Ratify Personnel Actions,” and so there was no violation of the OMA based on the agenda. Section 2.02(a) of the OMA (5 ILCS 120/2.02(a)) requires notice through an agenda 48 hours before a meeting, but notes that “the validity of any action taken by the public body which is germane to a subject on the agenda shall not be affected by other errors or omissions in the agenda.” In analyzing that language in the statute, the PAC noted that “germane to” means that a topic pertains or relates to the general subject identified in the agenda, which here was “Ratify Personnel Actions.” Relying on a previous PAC decision in which a final action of replacing a member of a Board committee was found to be sufficiently germane to the agenda item “Appointments,” the PAC found that the action of renewing the President’s contract was sufficiently germane to the agenda item “Ratify Personnel Actions” to avoid an OMA violation.
With respect to the second issue, the PAC found that the Board violated the OMA because the Board did not state that it was extending the contract of the President and did not discuss any specifics of the contract extension before taking final action. Section 2(e) of the OMA requires a public body to publicly recite the nature of a matter and provide other information that will inform the public of the business being conducted prior to taking final action on a matter. Here, the Board argued that it “substantially complied” with the OMA, even though it admittedly did not verbally announce any information about the contract, by projecting information about the contract on the screens. The PAC, however, noted that there is no authority for the proposition that projecting information onto a screen fulfills a public body’s obligation to recite the nature of the matter being considered and other information that will inform the public of the business being conducted. Therefore, the absence of any oral statement by the Board related to the approval of the President’s contract extension violated the OMA.