By: Brittany Flaherty Theis
On January 20, 2017, the Illinois Supreme Court issued its opinion in Board of Education of Springfield School District No. 186 v. Attorney General of Illinois (“Springfield”), 2017 IL 120343. In that opinion, the Supreme Court held that section 2(e) of the Open Meetings Act requires: 1) a public recital to take place at an open meeting before a matter is voted upon; 2) the recital must announce the nature of the matter under consideration, with sufficient detail to identify the particular transaction or issue, but 3) the public body need not provide an explanation of the terms or significance of the matter under consideration.
In Springfield, the Board of Education of Springfield School District No. 186 (the “School Board”) met in closed session on several occasions to discuss a potential separation agreement with the then-superintendent of schools. In one of the closed session meetings, the then-superintendent signed and dated a proposed agreement. At a later closed session meeting, six of the seven School Board members signed the agreement but did not date it. Following that closed session meeting, a reporter filed a request for review with the Public Access Counselor of the Office of the Attorney General.
While the request for review was pending, the School Board posted its agenda for the next School Board meeting, which was to be held March 5, 2013. The agenda included the following action item, “Approval of a Resolution regarding the Separation Agreement and Release between Superintendent Dr. Walter Milton, Jr., and the Board of Education.” Clicking on the action item in the online agenda led to the resolution and a link for the separation agreement itself.
At the March 5, 2013 School Board meeting, the School Board President introduced the agenda item and moved for the School Board to vote on the separation agreement. The motion was seconded and discussion followed. The matter was called for a roll call vote, the resolution was approved by a 6 to 1 vote, and the previously signed agreement was dated March 5, 2013.
The Attorney General issued two binding opinions regarding these matters. In the first, the Attorney General found that the School Board violated the Open Meetings Act by signing the agreement in closed session, failing to adequately inform the public of the nature of the matter under consideration, failing to create and maintain verbatim records of the closed sessions, and failing to summarize the discussions of the separation agreement in the minutes of the closed session meetings. In its second binding opinion, the Attorney General found that the School Board violated the Open Meetings Act by voting to approve the separation agreement without adequately informing the public of the business being conducted (in part, because it did not provide a verbal explanation of the significance of its actions). In both instances, the circuit court reversed the Attorney General’s binding opinions and the appellate court affirmed those reversals. The Attorney General appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.
On appeal to the Supreme Court were the following two questions:
- Whether the “public recital” required by section 2(e) of the Open Meetings Act must include an explanation of the significance of the contemplated action; and
- Whether the School Board violated section 2(e) by failing to satisfy the “public recital” requirement at the open meeting at which the School Board voted to approve the agreement.
Both issues before the Supreme Court turn on the interpretation of the “public recital” requirements of section 2(e) of the Open Meetings Act, which states that “[n]o 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.” 5 ILCS 120/2. The Attorney General argued that public bodies must verbally recite the key terms of the matter under consideration and that the significance or impact of the matter must be explained to the public at the open meeting.
The Supreme Court held that the plain meaning of “public recital of the nature of the matter being considered” from section 2(e) is that “the public body must state the essence of the matter under consideration, its character, or its identity” prior to the public body taking action on the matter. Additionally, the Supreme Court interpreted the “other information” requirement and stated that “we find the plain meaning to be that the only additional information required in the public recital is that needed to ‘inform the public of the business being conducted.’ Thus, while the ‘nature of the matter’ may be recited in nonspecific terms (the approval of a loan, a contract, a policy, or a resolution), ‘other information’ is necessary to inform the public of the specific item of business (the purpose of the loan, the subject of the contract, the type of property being purchased, the title of the policy, or the purpose of the resolution). The plain language of section 2(e) does not require more than this.” Notably, the Supreme Court rejected the suggestion that a public recital of “key terms” is required by the Open Meetings Act.
The Supreme Court deferred any consideration of the relevance, if any, of an earlier public posting of other information regarding the specific item under consideration to the sufficiency of the public recital. However, both the circuit court and appellate court considered the prior availability of the agenda and agreement on the school district’s website when determining that the School Board met the “public recital” requirements.
Several attorneys at Whitt Law are well versed in the requirements of the Open Meetings Act and are available to guide public bodies in their efforts to comply with those requirements. Our attorneys strive to follow the latest developments in matters impacting school districts and units of local government, such as the Springfield case. If you have questions regarding the Open Meetings Act, please contact Whitt Law Attorneys Brittany Flaherty Theis or Brian R. Bare.
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