Chicago City Council Pandemic Briefings Violated OMA

In a nonbinding opinion, the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor found that the Chicago City Council violated the OMA on three separate occasions by holding conference calls about the COVID-19 pandemic with a majority of a quorum of aldermen without following the OMA requirements for a meeting of a public body.

Four times in spring 2020, Mayor Lightfoot and a majority of a quorum of aldermen participated in audio and/or video conference “briefings” to discuss the City’s response to COVID-19.  In connection with these briefings, the City did not observe the requirements of the OMA for meetings of a public body, such as opening the briefings to the public or providing advanced public notice of the briefing.  The City argued that the briefings were not “meetings” subject to the OMA because the aldermen did not participate in a legislative capacity, no deliberation occurred, and the matters discussed were not public business.

The PAC first considered the definition of a meeting under the OMA: any gathering, whether in person, by video, or audio, or other contemporaneous communication of a majority of a quorum of the members of a public body for the purpose of discussing public business. The PAC acknowledged that a meeting of a majority of a quorum of a public body does not automatically trigger the requirements of the OMA; however, the PAC reviewed the summaries of the briefings and learned that the purpose was to allow the aldermen to discuss the City’s response to the pandemic and allow the aldermen to offer thoughts and recommendations on how to proceed. The PAC broadly interpreted public business to include not only the subjects on which the City Council takes action, but also the information exchanged relating to a matter the City Council could act on in the future. Here, the response to a public health crisis was critical public business of the City, and thus the City Council violated the OMA on three of the four briefing dates. To remedy the violation of OMA, the PAC requested that the City release summaries of the briefings for public inspection.

This opinion illustrates the broad definitions of both a “meeting” and “public business” as it relates to a public body. School boards should be cautious when meeting with a majority of a quorum, whether that meeting is taking place by phone, video conference, or email. If the meeting is held for the purpose of discussing public business, particularly if it involves an exchange of information, the meeting must comply with the requirements of a meeting pursuant to the OMA, including proper notice to and access by the public.

Source: Public Access Counselor Nonbinding Determination Letter 2020 PAC 62981 (Sept. 11, 2020)

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