by Vladimir Shuliga, Jr. (Spring 2017)

In a rare defeat for the Illinois Attorney General, the Illinois Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that the Attorney General should not have found that the Board of Education for Springfield School District No. 186 violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act (the “Act”). In The Board of Education of Springfield School District No. 186 v. The Attorney General of Illinois, 2017 IL 120343 (January 20, 2017), the court concluded that while the Open Meetings Act requires that a public body make a “public recital” prior to taking action on an agenda item by announcing the nature of the matter under consideration, the recital need not provide an explanation of the terms of the transaction/issue or its significance. Rather, the recital need only provide sufficient detail to identify the particular transaction or issue under consideration.

In this case, Springfield School District No. 186 (the “District”) negotiated a separation agreement with its superintendent, Dr. Walter Milton, Jr. On its website, the Board posted the agenda for a public meeting to be held on March 5, 2013. The agenda included an action item entitled “Approval of a Resolution regarding the Separation Agreement and Release between Superintendent Dr. Walter Milton, Jr. and the Board of Education.” The item contained a link to the actual separation agreement, which contained the signatures of Dr. Milton and the six board members, as well as a recommendation by the Board President to approve the agreement.

At the March meeting, the Board President introduced the agenda item by stating, “I have item 9.1, approval of a resolution regarding the separation agreement. The Board President recommends that the Board of Education of Springfield School District No. 186 vote to approve the separation agreement and release between Dr. Walter Milton Jr. and the Board of Education.” The President’s motion was seconded and a discussion ensued. The matter was then approved by a 6 to 1 vote.

In response to a complaint filed by a news reporter, the Attorney General issued a binding opinion finding that the Board violated Section 2(e) of the Act by voting to approve the separation agreement … without adequately informing the public of the business being conducted. The opinion held that the description of the matter by the Board President at the March open meeting was “vague” and failed to provide the public with the specific terms of the separation agreement; in particular, the inclusion of a “substantial lump sum payment of public funds.”

The Attorney General opinion went on to conclude that the public body is required “to provide a verbal explanation of the significance of its action to members of the public who are present at the meeting before the public body can proceed to take action” (emphasis added). Furthermore, the public recital “must be verbal and must take place during the public meeting” and the public body must ensure that, “the members of the public in attendance at the meeting receive sufficient ‘other information’ to understand the business being conducted.”

The Attorney General’s opinion was reviewed and reversed by the circuit court. That ruling was then directly appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court. In its unanimous opinion, the court focused on the text of Section 2(e) of the Open Meetings Act. Specifically, Section 2(e) provides 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(e)). The court analyzed the phrases, “preceded by,” “recital,” “nature of the matter being considered,” “and other information that will inform the public of the business being conducted” before concluding that the actual text did not support the Attorney General’s reading of the section. The statute only requires that the public body “state the essence of the matter under consideration, its character, or its identity.”

The court then reviewed the only two reported cases that had considered the meaning of Section 2(e), and determined that, a public recital of “key terms” was not required. Finally, the court considered whether final action had been taken place at a closed meeting and whether the recital at the open meeting was adequate.

Initially, the court noted that the Open Meetings Act “contains no bar to a public body’s taking a preliminary vote at a closed meeting.” The court reasoned that in order for final action to occur, there must be a public vote. In this case, in view of the public vote, final action did not occur at a closed meeting. Having already rejected the Attorney General’s assertion that the recital should have included “key terms,” the court decided that the recital was sufficiently detailed to meet the “public recital” requirement. It concluded that the Board President had recited the general nature of the matter under consideration (i.e., a separation agreement and release) and that such action was sufficient to “serve the purpose of the public recitation requirement.”

It is now clear that the “public recital” requirement in Section 2(e) of the Open Meetings Act does not require a detailed explanation of the final action being considered. A public body is only required to “state the essence of the matter under consideration, its character, or its identity,” although it may provide more detail at its discretion. The decision allows public bodies to streamline their meetings by foregoing an unnecessarily cumbersome summarization of each agenda item before taking action on that item.