Three members of the Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education may have violated the state Open Meetings Act last week in, of all places, the offices of the school district’s law firm. However, the school district’s attorney maintains there was no violation.
On April 1, Juliet Boyd, Rachel Marrello and Rich Regan, the school board’s negotiating team in teacher contract talks, along with two district administrators on the negotiating team, met with the district’s lawyer, Shelli Anderson, in the Wacker Drive offices of the Franczek Radelet law firm.
The meeting took place the day after a long negotiating session with the teachers’ union representatives and was apparently held to discuss negotiating strategy and to prepare for further negotiations.
The Illinois Open Meetings Act states meetings to discuss “public business” must have advance public notice if attended by a majority of a quorum, which is three members in the case of the seven-member District 96 school board.
However, the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act (IELRA) states that the Open Meetings Act does not apply to collective bargaining negotiations. That’s why three members of the board can participate in bargaining sessions without providing public notice of the bargaining sessions.
Anderson maintains preparation for negotiations is also exempt from the Open Meetings Act.
“Under the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act when you are meeting during the course of bargaining to prepare the provisions of the Open Meetings Act do not apply,” said Anderson.
However, a lawyer for a watchdog group that promotes government transparency does not agree with Anderson’s interpretation of the IELRA.
“To me, the plain language of the statute covers negotiations and not preparation for negotiations,” said Andrea Alvarez a community lawyer for the Elmhurst-based Citizens Advocacy Center. “I am not seeing from the plain reading of the statute that preparation for negotiations is included. I am seeing collective bargaining negotiations are included.”
The language of the IELRA makes no mention of preparation for negotiations. Instead it simply states that “[T]he provisions of the Open Meetings Act shall not apply to collective bargaining negotiations and grievance arbitrations conducted pursuant to this Act.”
Boyd said that the school board members were simply following the advice of their lawyer.
“It’s appropriate, it’s exempt from the Open Meetings Act,” Boyd said.
Anderson said that if the IELRA didn’t cover preparation for negotiations board negotiators would not be able to properly prepare for negotiations.
“Collective bargaining is a fluid process and it would be impractical to schedule prep sessions based on the availability of four board members (required to call a meeting under the [Open Meetings Act]) plus administrative team members, when only three board members are on the team and participating in the prep,” Anderson said.
While the Open Meetings Act allows discussions of “collective negotiating matters” to be held in closed session, the sessions still must be noticed to the public, and there was no notice given for the meeting on April 1. All board meetings must begin in public and then the board must publicly vote to go into closed session.
“The Open Meetings Act is clear that a majority of a quorum that meets to discuss public business is considered an open meeting that needs to properly noticed under Illinois law and if they didn’t do that that would be a violation of the Open Meetings Act,” Alvarez said.
The Landmark is also awaiting a final opinion on the matter from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office.
Violations of the Open Meetings Act are a Class C misdemeanor, though as a practical matter, violations almost never result in criminal prosecution.