Illinois Court Blesses Remote Meetings With Reasonable Public Comment Under OMA
In a recent order, the Circuit Court of Will County joined the Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor (PAC) in supporting public boards’ ability to hold virtual board meetings during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) crisis. The court deferred to the public body that its meeting regarding adoption of a pre-annexation agreement was “necessary” under Governor J.B. Pritzker’s recent Executive Order relaxing Open Meetings Act (OMA) requirements. The court also determined that the public body offered the public a sufficiently meaningful way of participating in the meeting by announcing it five days in advance, allowing public comment by phone and email, and providing both simultaneous and recorded access to the meeting via its website and social media.
In Evans v. City of Joliet, community members asked the court to issue an emergency temporary restraining order (TRO) prohibiting the City of Joliet from holding a special City Council meeting regarding adoption of a pre-annexation agreement. As the court noted, the agreement related to a proposed development that had drawn hundreds, if not thousands, of community participants at prior City Council meetings.
In their motion for a TRO, the plaintiffs set forth two arguments. First, the plaintiffs argued that the City’s meeting was not necessary and that, per Governor Pritzker’s recent order, public bodies should postpone consideration of public business “where possible” and only hold meetings when “necessary.” Second, the plaintiff’s claimed that the City failed to provide the public with a sufficiently meaningful way of participating in the meeting. Per the Governor’s order, public bodies should “ensure members of the public may monitor . . . meeting[s].”
The court rejected both arguments. According to the court, although a public body does not have unlimited discretion to determine what meetings are necessary, it is entitled to reasonable deference to decide when a meeting is a necessity. Further, it is the challenger’s responsibility to show that the meeting was not necessary, which the plaintiffs here did not do. With respect to the public participation argument, the court noted that the City announced the meeting five days in advance, permitted public comment opportunities by phone and e-mail, streamed the meeting through the City’s website and social media, aired the meeting on public television, and made a recording available on the City’s website after the meeting ended. This was a reasonable opportunity to participate even if “a relatively small segment of the population” lacks access to cable television, telephone, and internet. Based on this reasoning, the court found that the plaintiffs failed to establish a violation of the OMA or elements to justify a TRO.
The circuit court’s decision follows recent PAC opinions supporting a public body’s ability to hold virtual meetings provided there is an articulable reason that a meeting is “necessary” and appropriate notice steps regarding notice and participation are provided to the public. As we noted in our previous alert, we continue to recommend that until the General Assembly definitively amends the OMA, Boards addressing more controversial matters, where it is essential that the meeting be above reproach, should contact a Franczek attorney to discuss available options. For more information on this or any other OMA or COVID-19 question, contact the authors of this post or any other Franczek attorney.