In the closing days of the May term, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to clarify exactly what government officials may and may not do in closed sessions.  The Court allowed a petition for leave to appeal in Board of Education of Springfield School District No. 186 v. The Attorney General of Illinois, a decision from the Fourth District.

Board began in late 2012 when the superintendent of the defendant school board sent the Board a letter inquiring about terminating his contract.  The Board and the superintendent reached an agreement on the terms of his contractual release.  The superintendent signed and dated the agreement, and during a closed meeting of the Board a few days later, the seven members of the Board signed the agreement, but did not date their signatures.

Nearly a month later, the Board posted the entire agreement on its website, four days prior to a scheduled March 5, 2013 meeting.  An agenda item reflected that the Board would be voting on “the . . . Agreement” with the outgoing superintendent, but offered no further explanation.  During the public meeting, the Board’s president called up the question of the agreement, and the Board approved it 6-1.

A few months later, allegations were brought to the attention of the Attorney General that the Board’s procedures had violated the Open Meetings Act (5 ILCS 120/1).  The Board filed a complaint for administrative review.  The Circuit Court concluded that the Attorney General had erred by concluding that the Board’s “final action” in terms of the Act occurred when the members signed the agreement, as opposed to when (during a public meeting) they voted on it.  The court remanded the matter to the Board for a response to the AG’s second claim – that the Board had also violated the Act by failing to adequately explain in the public notice what it was doing.  Following remand, the Attorney General issued a second opinion concluding that the Board’s public explanation of what it intended to do did indeed violate the Act.  The matter then returned to the Circuit Court, which reversed the Attorney General’s administrative opinion.

The Fourth District unanimously affirmed.  The Court began by noting that although the Act permits closed meetings to discuss “appointment, employment, compensation, discipline, or dismissal of specific employees,” the Act bars the taking of “final action” at a closed meeting.  Any “final action” must 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 rejected the Attorney General’s claim that the Board had taken “final action” within the meaning of the Act when the Board members signed the agreement, citing several earlier cases holding that so long as a final and binding vote is taken in public session, signing a document is not “final action.”  Nor was the Board’s explanation of its intentions insufficient to inform the public “of the nature of the matter being considered,” according to the Court.  The Court noted that the AG had not explained what further information the Board, in its view, should have provided, and found that the AG’s argument imposed a greater burden on public entities than the plain language of the statute requires.

We expect Board of Education to be decided this winter.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Archangel12 (no changes).