The Illinois Attorney General’s Office has determined that three then members of the Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act in April when they met, without giving any public notice of the meeting, to discuss bargaining strategy in contract talks with the teachers’ union.
Juliet Boyd, Rachel Marrello and Rich Regan, who then made up the school board’s negotiating team, and two District 96 administrators met with the school district’s attorney, Shelli Anderson, on the afternoon of April 1 at the offices of the Franczek Radelet law firm in Chicago to discuss negotiating strategy the day after a long negotiating session with teachers’ union.
The Landmark found out about the meeting and asked the Attorney General’s office whether the meeting was a violation of the Open Meetings Act and filed an official request for review.
Normally a majority of a quorum, or three members of the seven member public board, cannot discuss public business without providing public notice of a meeting. The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act exempts contract negotiations from the Open Meetings Act.
Attorneys for the school board argued that because the April 1 meeting was about contract negotiations it was exempt from the requirements of the Open Meetings Act (OMA). But in its ruling, issued Monday, the Office of the Illinois Attorney General did not buy it.
“The board violated OMA on April 1, 2015, when a majority of a quorum of its members participated in the negotiating team’s discussion of collective bargaining without providing advance notice, posting an agenda, or otherwise abiding by the OMA,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Lindsey Johnson in her determination. “We note that the conclusion that OMA applies to unilateral meetings to discuss collective bargaining does not mean that those discussions cannot be confidential, it simply means that if a negotiating team wishes to discuss collective negotiating matters confidentially, it must make a motion and vote to enter closed session during a properly noticed open meeting to discuss those matters. We caution the board to comply with all the requirements of OMA in the future.”
When contacted by the Landmark on Monday, Regan said that he had not yet heard or seen the ruling. Marrello and Boyd did not respond to requests for comment on the ruling. Boyd is no longer on the school board.
District 96’s co-interim superintendent, Griff Powell, noted that the Attorney General’s ruling was a non-binding opinion and that the school district’s legal counsel does not agree with the determination.
“We do plan on complying with the Open Meetings Act in its entirety, but our attorneys disagree with that particular nonbinding position,” Powell said.
Johnson said that while the Public Access Bureau issues very few binding opinions, the fact that it is not binding should not be used to diminish the validity of the determination.
Powell said the school board does not have any negotiating team strategy sessions scheduled and the board might choose to notice any such meetings in the future.
Violations of the Open Meetings Act are a Class C misdemeanor and punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000, though as a practical matter violations of the Open Meetings Act almost never result in criminal prosecution.
Andrea Alvarez, a lawyer for the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center, praised the decision.
“The Citizen Advocacy Center is pleased with the reasoning and the decision of the Illinois Attorney General,” Alvarez said in an email. “In the interest of open government and public participation, Riverside School District 96 Board of Education, and all public bodies, needs to comply with every aspect of the Open Meeting Act.”