by Timothy J. Hoppa (Winter 2016)
In the Fall 2014 issue of this newsletter, we reported on a binding decision issued by the Attorney General Public Access Counsel (“PAC”) holding that Springfield School District No. 186 had violated the Open Meetings Act (“Act”) when it entered into a separation agreement with its former superintendent. Recently, the appellate court overturned this decision and ruled that there had been no violation.
The case in Board of Education of Springfield School District 186 v. Attorney General of Illinois, 2015 IL App (4th) 140941 began in March 2013. At its regular meeting, the school board voted to terminate the employment of its superintendent and approve a separation agreement. Although no reference was made to the specifics of the agreement at the meeting, the entire agreement had been posted, along with the agenda, on the school district’s website prior to the meeting.
As we previously reported, the Public Access Counsel (PAC) determined that this was a violation of the Open Meetings Act. In so doing, the PAC interpreted the Open Meetings Act to require public bodies to announce the salient terms of all contracts prior to voting at an open meeting.
The School District appealed this decision to the courts. The circuit court issued a decision in September 2014 reversing the decision, reasoning that the “[PAC] opinion significantly expands the requirements of the Act, changing the public notice from advising of the nature of the final action to be taken to a requirement that the public body explain the significance of the final action to be taken.” The PAC appealed the decision.
In December 2015, the appellate court issued a decision that upheld the trial court and reversed the PAC. The court ruled that there was no requirement for the school district to advise the public about anything more than the general nature of the final action to be taken. The appellate court ruled that the Act does not “require that the public body provide a detailed explanation about the significance or impact of the proposed final action.”
The decision by the appellate court is a welcome one; public bodies have not routinely provided a summary of every contract at its public meeting prior to approval. What is not clear from the court’s opinion is the impact that posting the contract on the school district website with the agenda had on the court. Both the trial court and appellate courts specifically mention this posting, but neither explain the significance. School districts should consider posting not just an agenda, but entire meeting packets on their websites. This action will significantly diminish any claim that business is not being conducted appropriately and openly.