The Illinois Supreme Court recently found in favor of the Springfield Board of Education, affirming decisions by the lower courts that the board did not violate the Open Meetings Act in its approval of a separation agreement with the school district’s superintendent. At issue in the case Board of Education of Springfield School District 186 v. Attorney General of Illinois, 2017 IL 120343, were (1) the public recital standard under the OMA and (2) whether the board violated the OMA by signing an agreement in closed session before a vote was taken in open session.
At its February 4, 2013, meeting, the board entered closed session, where six of seven board members signed a separation agreement with the school district’s superintendent. The board took no further action to approve the separation agreement during the subsequent open session of that meeting. Then, four days before the March 5, 2013, board meeting, an agenda was posted on the school district’s website, listing the approval of the separation agreement as a roll call item and providing a link to a copy of the separation agreement. At the March 5 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.” Thereafter, the board approved the separation agreement by a six-to-one vote during open session.
Public Recital Requirement
Section 2(e) of OMA requires final action by a public body to 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.” The Attorney General argued that this required the public body not only to recite the “nature of the matter being considered,” but also to “explain the significance of the matter” being considered. The Attorney General advocated for the court to make a case-by-case consideration of whether the “key terms” of the matter have been publicly recited.
The Illinois Supreme Court rejected this argument and instead held that a public body must recite the nature of the matter under consideration with sufficient detail to identify the particular transaction or issue, but need not provide an explanation of its terms or its significance. The court said the nature of the matter could be recited in nonspecific terms, such as “approval of a loan, a contract, a purchase, a policy, or a resolution.” The court also provided the following examples of what constitutes additional information necessary to inform the public of the specific item of business being conducted: “the purpose of the loan, the subject of the contract, the type of property being purchased, the title of the policy, or the purpose of the resolution.”
Under this rationale, the court found that the Springfield Board’s public recitation with respect to the separation agreement was sufficient because it included (1) the general nature of the matter under consideration (a separation agreement and release) and (2) detail sufficient to identify the particular transaction (that the separation agreement was between Dr. Milton and the board). The court found that the board did not need to read the entire separation agreement aloud or recite its key terms. The court also noted that the public recital must take place at the open meeting, prior to the action, and deferred any consideration of whether the posting of the agreement on the school district’s website was sufficient to constitute a public recital.
This case is an important clarification that, while the “key terms” of a board action are not required to be recited, public bodies must make a public recital of the general nature of the matter under consideration, with sufficient detail to identify the particular transaction or issue, prior to taking any final action.
Closed Session “Action” Prior to Vote in Open Session
Section 2(e) of OMA also prohibits a board from taking any “final action” during closed session. The appellate court in this case found that the board did not violate OMA by signing the separation agreement in closed session because that conduct did not constitute a final action; instead, the final action occurred when the board voted to approve the separation agreement during the open session of a subsequent board meeting.
The Illinois Supreme Court agreed. Noting that OMA contains no bar to a public body’s taking a preliminary vote at a closed meeting, the court then concluded that the “final action” here was the board’s vote in open session. The preliminary signature of the separation agreement before the vote in open session did not constitute final action, nor did it negate the subsequent action in open session.