Government bodies subject to the Open Meetings Act (OMA) sometimes struggle to strike the right balance between too much and too little detail contained in their published Board meeting agendas. A recent advisory opinion from the Public Access Counselor (PAC) of the Illinois Attorney General's office provides helpful guidance going forward.
At its January 11, 2017 board meeting, a library district hired a consulting firm to provide guidance on community engagement. The item on the agenda provided to the public said simply “Hire consultant - Action Required.” However, the agenda item immediately preceding that item stated, “Determine not to exceed amount for community engagement consultant - Action Required.” The Board also published a Director’s Report that contained additional detail regarding the hiring process for the consultant. Moreover, the Board had previously discussed the issue of hiring a consultant at four open meetings prior to the January 2017 meeting, including a special meeting convened in December 2016 to interview three companies as potential consultants.
A citizen filed a complaint with the PAC, alleging the board violated Section 2.02(c) of the OMA. Section 2.02(c) requires that a public body’s agenda state “the general subject matter of any resolution or ordinance that will be the subject of final action at the meeting.” However, Section 2.02 does not define “general subject matter,” which leaves public bodies discretion in drafting their agendas. The concerned citizen complained that “Hire consultant” was too vague and broad, and therefore the board violated the OMA.
The PAC disagreed and ruled in favor of the library board. Specifically, the PAC held that although “Hire consultant” did not give details of the proposed action, Section 2.02 only requires an agenda to set forth the general subject matter of the action item. Because “general subject matter” is not defined by the statute, the PAC interprets “general” using its plain and ordinary meaning.
The PAC also noted that the most basic purpose of Section 2.02(c) is to provide notice of all matters the public body will act on before it takes action. Therefore, when viewed in light of the item preceding “Hire consultant,” the agenda stated the general subject matter regarding the nature of the consultant’s work and the actions to be taken. The PAC found the agenda provided sufficient notice that the Board would “determine a maximum amount of compensation for a community engagement consultant,” and then actually vote on hiring such a consultant.
While the PAC’s decision is non-binding, it provides useful guidance regarding the level of detail public bodies must include in their board agenda items. The PAC’s opinion cited legislative debate history that indicates the purpose of Section 2.02 was simply to ensure that “the people who follow their units of local government know what they’re going to be acting on.” Public bodies should keep those words, and this PAC decision, in mind when they draft board meeting agendas in the future.