On January 9, 2019, the Public Access Bureau of the Office of the Attorney General (“PAC”) issued a binding determination letter finding the Board of Education of Lyons Elementary School District No. 103 violated the Open Meetings Act (“OMA”) when it limited public comments to a total of 15 minutes during its October 22, 2018, board meeting without having an established and recorded policy setting forth such a limitation.
During the October 22, 2018, board meeting, several parents and members of the public had come to comment on recent news that the District hired a sixth grade English teacher who had been charged with nine counts of attempted murder. According to the PAC’s determination letter, approximately 100 parents, community members and politicians attended that Board meeting. During that meeting, the Board announced and provided a handout stating that the public comment period would be limited to a total of 15 minutes. Additionally, as provided in the Board’s policy, each speaker had three minutes to address the Board. Several parents and the Commissioner were barred from speaking due to the time restrictions. The Board’s policy made no mention of public comment being limited to a total of 15 minutes.
Under OMA, the public has a right to address the Board subject “to the rules established and recorded by the public body.” 5 ILCS 120/2.06(g). In this case, the PAC determined that the 15-minute cap was not an “established” rule. The Board argued it was compliant with OMA because it announced the 15-minute cap at the Board meeting, provided notice through a handout at the meeting, and had limited public comment to 15 minutes in the past. The PAC rejected these arguments, primarily noting that the Board had an existing, written policy setting forth the rules for public comment and the 15-minute cap was not part of the policy. Even though the 15-minute cap may have been reflected in the handouts and announced at Board meetings for a decade, the Board failed to show it took action to establish or otherwise adopt the rules in the handout. Further, the PAC concluded that nothing in OMA suggests that past practices not formally adopted are “established and recorded” under Section 2.06(g). The PAC directed the Board to refrain from applying unestablished and unrecorded rules restricting public comment in future meetings.
This binding PAC determination letter highlights the need for school boards to review their policies and ensure their practices are supported by their policies.