The Illinois Appellate Court recently addressed the key issue of what qualifies as a sufficient public recital for a board’s final actions, holding in favor of a plaintiff’s challenge under the Open Meetings Act (“OMA”).
Prior to a regularly scheduled meeting, the Clark County Park District’s Board posted a meeting agenda that included two items, “X. Board Approval of Lease Rates” and “XI. Board Approval
of Revised Covenants,” with no further explanation or details. At the meeting, the Board voted to approve the items with little comment. Board members simply stated a request for approval, moved for a vote, and voted on the items. After the swift vote, a citizen asked what the Board had voted on, and a Board member replied that “[t]hey gotta [sic] get recorded at the courthouse first. I’m sorry . . . it’s just a formality.”
Individuals from a local group of community activists then filed suit, alleging that the Board had failed to give a sufficient public recital on the two items before taking final action. The Park District filed a motion to dismiss along with a motion for sanctions against the Plaintiffs, arguing that their suit was frivolous and in fact intended to harass the board over a disagreement on unrelated subdivision development plans. The trial court held in favor of the Board’s motion to dismiss but denied its motion for sanctions.
On appeal, the primary issue was what precisely satisfies the OMA’s Section 2(e) requirement that final action 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.” However, despite reversing the trial court’s holding, the appellate court hesitated to offer very specific guidance because, as the court noted, the only other Illinois case discussing this issue is currently being argued before the Illinois Supreme Court. We previously discussed that case, Springfield School District No. 186 v. The Attorney General of Illinois, here, and discussed the Supreme Court’s decision to review the decisions here.
While reiterating that Section 2(e) does not “require that the public body provide a detailed explanation about the significance or impact of the proposed final action,” and admitting that they were “unsure precisely what standard of specificity is required of a public recital,” the court was able to clarify what is not sufficient after referring to a non-binding opinion by the Attorney General. In a Public Access Opinion, the Attorney General concluded that a public recital must include “the key terms of [the] proposed public contract or agreement” 2014 Ill. Att’y Gen. Pub. Access Op. No. 14-001.
Using the Attorney General’s focus on “key terms” as a guide, the court stated that the Board’s failure to “provide the public any of the key terms of the lease agreement or covenant” was determinative. Without certain key terms, “[t]he public was uninformed of what was being leased. Was it canoes? Was it camping equipment? . . . Who knows?” The court also pointed to the absence of information on “who was leasing the property and for how long or how the Park District was going to be compensated.”
Ultimately, the court somewhat unhelpfully concluded, “[t]he overarching concern is whether the recital sufficiently informed the public of the nature of the matter being considered.” Until the Supreme Court decides Springfield School District No. 186, though, this case stands as the one of the only sources of direction on the matter of public recitals. This case tells us that only mentioning the agenda item’s title and moving for approval will fail to survive a legal challenge.
Contact Jeff Goelitz with your Open Meetings Act inquiries.