Appellate Court Affirms Circuit Court Reversal of PAC Opinion on OMA Violation
Last year, an Illinois Circuit Court overturned a Public Access Counselor opinion that found that the Board of Education of Springfield School District No. 186 violated the Open Meetings Act when it voted on the separation agreement of the former district superintendent without reciting the particular details of the agreement in open session (as explained in this alert). The circuit court held that the PAC erred by requiring the Board to provide a detailed explanation of the separation agreement at the board’s meeting, including the significance of the final action to be taken as well as the lump sum to be paid to the former superintendent. Following the circuit court decision, the Illinois Attorney General appealed, and the Fourth District Appellate Court found in favor of the school district again, holding that the Board’s notice, public recital, and vote on the separation agreement were all in compliance with the Open Meetings Act.
As a refresher, the provision at issue in this case is Section 2(e) of the OMA which provides that:
No final action may be taken at a closed session 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(e)).
On appeal, the Attorney General argued that the school board took final action at its February 4, 2013 meeting (where six out of seven board members signed the separation agreement) rather than at its March 5, 2013 meeting (where the board voted in open session to approve the separation agreement). The Attorney General also contended that the vote on March 5, 2013 did not constitute a valid final action because the board did not adequately inform the public as required by Section 2(e) of the OMA.
The Appellate Court disagreed with both arguments made by the Attorney General. First, the Appellate Court found that the act of board members signing the agreement during a closed session did not constitute a final action within the meaning of the OMA. Instead, the vote taken in open session on March 5, 2013 was the board’s final action. The Appellate Court also found that the board adequately informed the public about the agreement prior to its action at the March 5, 2013 meeting. The Appellate Court noted that the Board posted the agenda on its website and that the first action item listed under the heading of the agenda read “Approval of a Resolution regarding the Agreement between Milton and the Board.” The Board also provided a link beneath this item which allowed members of the pubic to view the entire agreement. The Appellate Court found this notice to be sufficient under the OMA.
With respect to the public recital requirement, during the March 5, 2015 meeting, the Board president introduced the agreement by reciting language consistent with the general terms of the agenda and recommended the Board approve the item. The Attorney General argued that the public was ill informed as to the nature of the business the Board conducted because they were not given the details about the agreement at the meeting. The Appellate Court determined that Section 2(e) requires public bodies to advise the public about the general nature of the final action to be taken. That Section does not require that the public body provide a detailed explanation about the significance or impact of the proposed final action. The Appellate Court agreed with the circuit court’s assessment that the Attorney General’s interpretation of Section 2(e) would impose a greater burden on the Board than required by the statute itself.
This decision further clarifies the requirements of the OMA and provides a practical application of Section 2(e) to guide a public body taking final action on matters. The full opinion can be found here.