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Board member sues U-46 to have minutes saved
By Seth Hancock
School District U-46 board member Jeanette Ward filed a suit against the Board of Education seeking an injunction on destroying the recording of a 2014 closed session meeting and a restraining order was issued by a Kane County court on Monday, May 16.
At the board meeting that evening, the board voted 5-2, Ward and Cody Holt voting no, for the destruction of closed session recordings prior to Nov. 16, 2014 with the exception of the Jan. 25, 2014 recording which the restraining order granted by Circuit Judge David Akemann covers.
The restraining order, which was issued just hours before the meeting that evening, states that U-46 is “temporarily restrained from destroying or altering the verbatim record of the closed session of the Defendant Board from January 25, 2014,” and it “shall remain in full force and effect from the date and hour hereof until further order of the Court.” A status hearing is set for June 9.
Before the board meeting, Ward entered the public room about 20 minutes prior to the start of the meeting while the rest of the board continued in closed session. Although not stated at the meeting, it is quite possible the board likely reviewed the suit as pending litigation is one of the issues that can be discussed in closed session.
Ward, who took office about a year ago, has sought access to closed session recordings from the previous board since taking her seat which led to the board drafting a policy, under Code 2.201, requiring a majority vote of the board to be able to gain access to the recordings.
In the court filings for the injunction, which was filed by attorneys from Rathje & Woodward, LLC on behalf of Ward, an email from Ward to Donna Smith, the U-46 board president, the night before on May 15 was cited: “If we’re going to vote to destroy recordings tomorrow, I need access tomorrow during the day to all closed session recordings that we are voting to destroy. We must make sure that we have adequate minutes of these meetings before we destroy any recordings.”
No reply from Smith is in the court filings.
In question on the recording that was saved is whether or not Open Meetings Act (OMA) violations occurred, which was alleged by former board member Frank Napolitano who was in attendance at the meeting. He also alleged OMA violations at the May 13, 2013 closed session meeting, but that recording was approved for destruction by the previous board.
“This was totally avoidable by U-46 and the members of the board,” Napolitano said after the meeting. “Jeanette has requested on multiple occasions to listen to closed session recordings, which she is entitled to listen to, and her request has been ignored and outright denied by the board.”
The vote to destroy these recordings comes on the heels of a bill in the Illinois General Assembly, House Bill 4630 sponsored by Rep. Jeannie Ives, amending the OMA that passed 112-0 in the house and is now in the senate. The bill would affirm, not grant, the right of local government board members access to recordings without needing a vote from that board.
HB4630’s synopsis states “that any and all available minutes and verbatim recordings of meetings closed to the public prior to a newly elected official’s term in a public body shall be available to that official for review, regardless of whether those minutes or verbatim recordings are confidential. Effective immediately.”
In October, Ward sought access to the Jan. 25, 2014 meeting but was denied by a 4-3 vote as Smith claimed infallibility. Smith said because she, the district’s chief legal officer Miguel Rodriguez and a representative of the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB) attended that meeting that somehow that proves OMA violations did not occur.
“Now, on the eve of law changing that would make clearer, the right of local board members to listen to closed session recording, U-46 is planning to destroy them, so regardless of the clarity in the law, the recordings would be gone forever,” Napolitano said. “[The injunction was Ward’s] only means to stop them from destroying the very recordings she has requested access to.”
Prior to the vote, Ward stated why she was voting no to the destruction of the other recordings.
“I believe that all board members should have access to them without having a vote from the board, and so do 112 legislators in Springfield,” Ward said and added: “I don’t feel like I, in good conscience, can now vote to destroy closed session meeting recordings that I have not listened to. I do appreciate that the one meeting has been removed.”
Code 2.201 of U-46 Board policies already appeared to require board members to listen to closed session recording, and that those recording can be made public, before the board amended the policy requiring a majority vote to listen.
That code stated: “At least every six months, the Board will review the minutes and recordings of all closed sessions not previously released and will decide which, if any, no longer require confidentiality and should be made available for public inspection.”
It is unclear in the policy what would deem a recording to “no longer require confidentiality.” The current board as well as the previous board have not made any closed session recording public and have not stated why confidentiality is needed.
During public comments, Wayne resident Rick Newton said “the timing just seems very ironic” on voting to destroy recordings considering HB4630 and “it hardly seems like coincidence.”
Smith said before the vote “this is something that we do every fall, every spring.”
Deanna Sullivan, the IASB’s director of Governmental Relations, filed a witness slip against HB4630 on behalf of the IASB’s lobbying arm IL Statewide School Management Alliance after the bill went to the senate.
Considering the IASB is paid by school boards to represent them, The Examiner asked Sullivan why the IASB would oppose a bill that would improve transparency and improve access to information for school board members that the organization represents. Sullivan said the reason was in the language and the IASB now supports it after an amendment made on May 17 by senate co-sponsor Michael Connelly.
“It stems from the way the bill was originally drafted,” Sullivan said. “The amendment that we worked out with the sponsors would just amend the section on verbatim record and closed meeting minutes separately instead of making a separate referencing [to] both. It was made clear in Senate committee discussion that there is confusion between the two types of records and how they are treated by law.”