Minutes of the past 22 monthly public meetings of the Triton College Board of Trustees suggest that body has routinely violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act by not giving proper notice for closed-door confabs. In addition, the board has not recorded any roll call votes required by law before a public body decides to go into closed session.

The board regularly does not start public meetings on time because it is meeting in closed session, something allowed by law. However, those closed-door sessions are not properly announced to the public, and the board does not appear to be following the law in entering into the sessions, leaving the matter of what’s discussed behind closed doors a near total mystery, meeting minutes show.

Public bodies, such as the Triton board, must give public notice 48 hours in advance of a meeting, usually by posting the agenda for the meeting. To enter into a closed session, the body must first meet in open session before closing the meeting for one of two dozen “strictly construed” reasons.

Section 2A of the Illinois Open Meetings Act states that a public body close a meeting (or part of a meeting) “upon a majority vote of a quorum present, taken at a meeting open to the public for which notice has been given as required by this Act.”

“A public body can’t have a closed meeting without first having a public meeting,” said Scott Sievers, assistant public access counselor for the Illinois Attorney General’s Office. “The vote to go into closed session has to be conducted in open session.”

To close a meeting, the board must publicly state one of 24 reasons allowed by law, and hold a roll-call vote in which each board member votes yes or no on closing the meeting. That vote to go into closed session, along with each board member’s vote on the issue, must then be published in the open meeting’s minutes.

Besides the requirement for convening an open meeting first, Sievers stressed the need for board members to vote individually.

“If the [Triton] minutes don’t show that there was a roll-call vote [on the closed session], then I think it’s questionable if they complied,” he said.

Of the past 22 regularly scheduled or special meetings called by the Triton College board, 13 have started at least a half-hour late (see sidebar). Three other times the board publicly convened at least 15 minutes late. On six occasions, the meeting started over an hour late-in one case, an hour and 45 minutes after the time indicated on the published meeting agenda.

Winifred Podgorski has observed the Triton board proceedings the past 15 years for the Oak Park River Forest League of Women Voters. She said that the Triton board has been holding closed meetings prior to publicly noticed board meetings over that period.

“They always start out with a closed meeting,” she said. “They’ve never had an open meeting that wasn’t preceded by a closed meeting.”

The closed sessions often take quite some time, according to both Podgorski and the published minutes.

“Generally, they last longer than the open meeting,” she said.

Reached at work on Aug. 21, Triton board Vice Chair Donna Peluso confirmed that practice.

Peluso took responsibility for the late start of the board’s August meeting which convened 20 minutes late at 7:20 p.m.

“It was my fault. I failed to mention at the board meeting that we had a human resources, a personnel issue,” she said.

The personnel discussion took place in executive session, Peluso said.

“At those times, we have executive session where we [usually] deal with human resources issues,” she said.

Asked if those sessions were noticed on an agenda beforehand, Peluso said they were. When pressed, though, she said, “It’s on the agenda, I believe. I’m not sure. I’d have to check.”

In fact, none of the agendas for the last 22 meetings lists a closed session, and none of the minutes of the proceedings subsequently published shows any indication that the Triton board announced a closed session, stated its purpose and held a roll-call vote on the issue.

After further questioning of the board’s handling of open meetings requirements, Peluso replied, “We have attorneys. Anything you have regarding those issues you’d need to talk with them.”

She then noted she was very busy and said goodbye.

Triton Board Chairman Mark Stephens, who did not return calls for comment, has himself confirmed in the minutes of one meeting that the board went into at one executive session prior to a scheduled public meeting. In the minutes for the Triton Board’s November 2005 meeting, under “Chairman’s Report,” Stephens is said to have “apologized for the late start of the meeting, explaining that personnel ramifications of the enrollment initiatives were being discussed in executive session.”

The Wednesday Journal, parent company of the Riverside-Brookfield Landmark, filed a complaint with the Illinois Attorney General’s office earlier this month, alleging that the Triton College board had violated the open meetings statute on five occasions over the past year. On Aug. 16, Sievers mailed a letter to Stephens, notifying him of the complaint and advising him on the requirements of the law.

The letter requested that Stephens “review the practices of the Triton Board to ensure compliance with the Open Meetings Act,” and offered assistance with any questions the board may have concerning compliance.

“If they disagree, we’d love to get their responses and see what happened,” Sievers said.

The role of the attorney general’s office is more advisory than one of enforcement when it comes to possible violations, Sievers said. However, the Open Meetings Act stipulates that individual citizens or county prosecutors may bring civil or criminal court actions against those who violate the act.

Violating the Open Meetings Act is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $1,500 and imprisonment of up to 30 days.

Triton board meeting start times

All meetings scheduled to start at 7 p.m., according to published agendas. On three occasions, an explanation for the late start was noted in the meeting minutes.

Date Actual start
Dec. 21, 2004 7:35 p.m.
Feb. 22, 2005 8:15 p.m.
Mar. 15, 2005 7:34 p.m.
Apr. 26, 2005 8:05 p.m.
June 21, 2005 8:10 p.m.
Aug. 23, 2005 7:33 p.m.
Sep. 27, 2005 8:05 p.m.
Oct. 18, 2005 7:39 p.m.
Nov. 15, 2005 7:40 p.m.
Jan. 24, 2006 8:15 p.m.
Feb. 21, 2006 8:06 p.m.
May 16, 2006 8:45 p.m.
July 18, 2006 7:56 p.m.