“Sunshine Week” is in full swing, and this blog post addresses an essential transparency topic: The Open Meetings Act (OMA). If you want to learn more about OMA, visit www.bettergov.org.
Just last week, the BGA shared the news about north suburban New Trier Township High School District 203 violating Illinois’ Open Meetings Act.
Well, New Trier is not alone.
In Central Illinois’ Pontiac Elementary School District 429, the school board has violated the Open Meetings Act twice within the last year, according to reviews handed down by the office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
The Open Meetings Act requires meetings of governmental bodies to be open to the public, except in limited situations.
The violations in Pontiac stem from board meetings that went into closed session to discuss matters the attorney general office did not consider to be exempted under the law. Exceptions include discussion involving collective bargaining and related issues, such as wages, hours and working conditions.
In the most recent ruling, released in January, the attorney general found that the local teachers union president read a statement to the Pontiac school board regarding working conditions, even though neither the union nor the board were engaged in active or pending collective bargaining.
The current agreement between the union and board expires at the end of the academic year. Stephen Graham, Pontiac District 429 superintendent, disagreed with the attorney general’s stance.
In an affidavit filed with Madigan’s office, Graham said he “believed it appropriate to discuss the letter in closed session as ‘collective negotiating matters between the public body and its employee or their representatives.’ ”
The BGA tried a number of times to contact Graham for comment, but he did not return calls.
However, a week after the January ruling, Graham told Bloomington’s The Pantagraph that the disagreement with the attorney general’s office is “really about interpretation.”
Like the New Trier case, the attorney general’s rulings on Pontiac were non-binding, which can make following through on transparency initiatives difficult, said Joan Lipinski, a Pontiac resident who filed the second complaint against the Pontiac school board and who’s husband left the school board in 2009.
“We’ve had battles with the board,” Lipinski said. “They have the Open Meetings Act and they don’t follow that.”
After the attorney general’s first decision in July 2010, the Pontiac board was asked to release audio portions of its closed session, but by the time of the attorney general’s second ruling, it had not. Not long afterward the district released the audio recordings from both closed session meetings.
Since the state’s new FOIA rules became law last year, 261 Open Meetings Act complaints have been filed with the attorney general, according to the agency.
The BGA encourages Illinois residents to maintain their vigilance and keep reporting suspected violators of the OMA to the attorney general’s office.
This blog entry was reported and written by BGA Investigator James Edwards, who can be reached at (312) 821-9036, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.