By Hillary Dickerson,
editor at Galena Gazette Publications, Inc.
If you go to a city council meeting, can you record that meeting? Do you have the right to speak at that meeting? And before you speak, do you need to give your address?
If you attended the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association training Wednesday, Sept. 19, you learned the answers to those questions are: Yes, Yes, and No.
The NINA fall training event brought Public Access Counselor Sarah Pratt to the Northern Illinois University campus to offer a primer on the Illinois Open Meetings Act.
The Public Access Counselor position was created in 2010 to provide advice and education with respect to the Freedom of Information Act and OMA, and to resolve complaints concerning compliance with FOIA and OMA — without litigation.
It’s a necessity in Illinois. The Public Access Counselor’s office has received more than 30,000 complaints since 2010.
The office has also issued 116 binding opinions, and thousands of letters of determination.
The training delved into what constitutes a public body — a school board, city council, township board and county board, among many others — and specified that each elected or appointed member of a public body needs to attend a FOIA training.
Pratt also went into detail as to what defines a meeting, and whether or not members can attend by telephone or video-conference. (And they can, provided that there is a quorum physically present.)
Meetings, in addition, must not be merely convenient to the members of the public who show up but the public as a whole. Meetings can’t be held at private residences.
Advanced notice of meetings needs to be 48 hours in advance, whether the meeting is a regularly-scheduled meeting, or a special meeting. Posting the agenda on the Internet does satisfy that requirement.
The public body CAN discuss things not on the agenda; however, it may not take final action on any matter NOT on the agenda.
There are only a handful of reasons a public body can go into closed session:
- Land acquisition
- Collective bargaining
- Student disciplinary cases
And while it can go into closed session, a public body is not required to discuss anything in closed session. All these could be discussed in open session to further promote transparency.
Some Case Studies
Pratt discussed some of the actual cases where her office chose to step in. Some of the examples of improper actions were surprising.
In one case, four of six city council members and the mayor signed a letter terminating a city employee. This employee was handed the letter, and told to gather her things and leave work immediately.
The city argued that it didn’t violate OMA because it did not hold a meeting; the mayor, instead, just collected the signatures individually.
The Public Access Counselor concluded that the city DID violate OMA by taking final action without a vote in open session.
If you’re dealing with an OMA violation, visit http://foia.ilattorneygeneral.net for more information on how to submit your concerns to the Public Access Counselor’s office.
What To Do If Open Meetings Act Is Violated
Any person can file a request for review with the Public Access Counselor within 60 days of discovery of the alleged violation.
The Public Access Counselor has a process for handling OMA and FOIA complaints without involving litigation. If the Public Access Bureau finds that an OMA violation has occurred, it may, depending on the violation, direct the public body to:
- release closed session recording and minutes;
- instruct the public body to re-vote on a matter; or
- instruct the public body on how to avoid future violations.
Visit http://foia.ilattorneygeneral.net for more information on how to submit your concerns to the Public Access Counselor’s Office.