APPELLATE COURT OVERRULES ATTORNEY GENERAL ON SIGNIFICANT OPEN MEETINGS INTERPRETATION

 December 18, 2015       

 By James Petrungaro     

Last year, we reported to you decisions from the Attorney General concerning the process employed by the Springfield School District 186 Board of Education when it authorized a settlement agreement with its departing superintendent. The facts of the dispute were largely uncontested. 

  • In late 2012, the School District’s superintendent approached the board about terminating their employment contract.

  •  At a February 4, 2013 board meeting, six of seven board members signed a separation agreement during closed session. The agreement called for the payment of more than $177,000 to the departing superintendent.

  •  Instead of taking final action in public after the closed-session on February 4, 2013, the Board of Education took a public roll-call vote at its next regular meeting on March 5, 2013.

  • The separation agreement was made publicly available days before the March 5, 2013 meeting on the District’s website.

  • At the March 5, 2013 meeting, the board identified the superintendent by name and position in its motion to authorize the separation agreement, but did not identify the monetary or other specific terms of the agreement.

 After the March 5, 2013 meeting, a member of the media filed a complaint with the Public Access Counselor’s Office of the Attorney General complaining that the board violated the Open Meetings Act (OMA) by: (1) voting on the separation agreement in closed session on February 4; and (2) not adequately informing the public of the nature of the action on March 5.            

In two separate binding opinions, the Attorney General ruled that the board’s actions violated Section 2(e) of the OMA, which provides: Final action. No final action may be taken at a closed meeting. Final action shall 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.  The Attorney General surprisingly reasoned that the board’s signing of the separation agreement in closed session was a “final action” that was prohibited by the OMA. She further contended that even if the school board’s action on March 5 was a lawful “ratification” of its prior action on February 4, that vote did not sufficiently inform the public of the nature of the action being taken. Particularly, the Attorney General took issue with the board’s failure to orally describe the payment amount and other pertinent terms at the time the board voted in public session on March 5.            

The Board of Education appealed the decision to the Circuit Court, which reversed the Attorney General’s decisions. The Attorney General then appealed that decision to the Appellate Court. On appeal, Scariano, Himes and Petrarca represented the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB), Illinois Association of School Administrators (IASA) and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials (IASBO) by filing an amicus brief with the Appellate Court. Chiefly, the Associations were concerned that the Attorney General’s stance could wreak havoc on the orderly conduct of school board meetings.            

For example, if a board were prohibited from signing a settlement agreement in closed session prior to taking public action on that same agreement, the Attorney General could similarly prohibit boards from testing the water in closed session through informal and non-final straw polls that are part of the fabric of board governance. Additionally, the Associations cautioned the Appellate Court that if Boards were required to publicly cite the “pertinent terms” of all board actions, board meetings would be unnecessarily bogged down, thus deterring and disenfranchising public participation.            

On December 15th, the Appellate Court soundly rejected the Attorney General’s decisions and held that signing the settlement agreement in closed session was not a final action since the Board of Education in fact later took a public vote on the settlement agreement. The Appellate Court also held that the announcement of the separation agreement with the named superintendent, coupled with the Board’s posting of the actual settlement agreement online prior to the meeting, was sufficient public notice and description of the action being taken that night.            

This case is just one example of the aggressive position the Attorney General has taken concerning public body compliance with the OMA, yet it serves as a reminder that the Attorney General’s opinion is not necessarily the final word on compliance issues. If you have any questions concerning your board’s compliance with the OMA, do not hesitate to contact us.