SPRINGFIELD — Gov. J.B. Pritzker used his emergency powers Monday to waive a portion of the Illinois Open Meetings Act to allow local governments and other public bodies to hold “remote” meetings to help control the spread of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19.
And, Riverside Elementary School District 96 will be one of the first to take advantage.
The school board is scheduled to meet March 18 at 7 p.m. at Hauser Junior High in Riverside, but now that plan has changed.
“I just received word that requirements specific to Open Meetings Act were modified during COVID-19,” Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye said in an email to the Landmark. “The board will convene virtually. There will be a way to access the meeting content.”
As of press time on Tuesday, just how that access would be granted wasn’t clear.
The allowance for “virtual” meetings was part of an executive order the governor issued March 16 also prohibiting public gatherings of 50 or more people, a new standard recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The order waives a portion of the Open Meetings Act that requires a quorum of members of a public body be “physically present” at the meeting location, and limits the circumstances under which an individual member may take part by video or audio conference.
It applies to city councils, county boards, school boards and all other public bodies of state and local government.
Don Craven, legal counsel to the Illinois Press Association, noted in an email that Pritzker did not suspend other provisions of the Open Meetings Act that require public notice be given of all meetings and that require meetings to be open and accessible to the public and press.
“He did not suspend the requirement that the meeting be held in a place open and accessible to the public,” Craven said in the memo. “He did not suspend the requirement that the public be allowed to address the board, which means that there has to be a way for the public to participate by phone.”
The Open Meetings Act requires public bodies to provide public notice of a meeting, including the agenda, at least 48 hours in advance of the meeting. Craven encouraged all news outlets that cover those meetings to immediately submit requests for notice of any special, emergency or regular meeting.
At the request of state Rep. Bob Morgan, D-Deerfield, the Illinois Press Association also drafted possible legislation allowing public bodies to meet without a physical quorum present while also ensuring that notice requirements, public participation and public access are protected.
“In times like these, the role of the local press and broadcasters is more important than ever,” Morgan said in a statement. “While we need to take steps to ensure that members of public bodies can safely meet to do the important work of local government, we also need to take steps to make sure that the press and public know about these meetings, and are able to listen and participate in these meetings as well.”