The Examiner U-46 News Feed
U-46 transparency wins after legislative action
By Seth Hancock
The message from board member Jeanette Ward was that transparency has won, but from Traci Ellis it was that she is perpetually the victim.
Ward’s efforts to listen to a closed session meeting recording from the previous board prevailed, with help from the state legislator, at the School District U-46 Board of Education meeting on Monday, June 6. The board voted 6-0, Veronica Noland was absent, to allow access to all board members the recording from the Jan. 25, 2014 meeting which former board member Frank Napolitano alleged Open Meetings Act (OMA) violations occurred.
That Jan. 25 meeting was a board self evaluation and evaluation of then superintendent Jose Torres.
At the previous board meeting, the board voted 5-2, Ward and Cody Holt voting no, to destroy all recordings prior to Nov. 16 of 2014 with the exception of the Jan. 25 recording as Ward had to seek a court injunction to save that recording from destruction.
As previously reported, House Bill 4630 was unanimously approved by the state house and has since been unanimously approved by the senate and is awaiting the signature of Gov. Bruce Rauner. That bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeannie Ives, attended the June 6 meeting to speak during public comments to clarify to the board that HB4630 affirms the rights of newly elected board members access to closed session recordings from a previous board.
“I want to ensure you understood that in passing that bill it was clear that legislators are highly sensitive to this issue and were very concerned to hear that duly elected officials throughout Illinois were denied to simple access to closed session minutes and recordings,” Ives said.
Ives added that strengthening transparency “will continue as voters and taxpayers look to hold their elected officials accountable for a myriad of decisions.”
Kirk Allen and John Kraft, co-founders of the Edgar County Watchdogs, also attended.
Kraft said the board’s majority, including Ellis and Noland along with the board’s president Donna Smith, who all were at the Jan. 25 meeting, was “protecting yourself from public embarrassment.” He also said he attended Illinois General Assembly hearings on HB4630 and legislators were shocked that any elected official was being denied access and that before this bill the law already allowed access.
Allen said that “as we understand it, the recording in question and currently under a restraining order contains information that is not protected under OMA nor confidential” and challenged the board to release the recording publicly “since members of this board claim there’s nothing to hide.”
Ward has sought access to all previous closed session recordings since the start, asking for access in only her second meeting on the board in May 2015. The board’s majority did not favor transparency in that instance, opting for a board member needing a majority vote for access when a change to the board’s policy was approved 4-3 in September with Holt, Ward and Phil Costello voting no saying access should not be determined by the majority.
It wasn’t until the process to change the board policy regarding access that Napolitano spoke with The Examiner regarding the alleged OMA violations, and Ward sought access after the allegations were made public. Ellis, Noland and Smith claimed no violations occurred citing their infallibility as reason why the OMA was not violated, and newly elected board member Sue Kerr joined their fight against transparency.
Considering a court agreed with Ward to protect the Jan. 25 recording and the legislator approved HB4630, the board’s majority finally had no option left but allow transparency, but “because the bill has not been signed by the governor into law yet, we will be following our current policy to approve the listening of this recording” Smith said despite Ives clarifying that access should already be granted under current law.
Ellis, who claimed victim status at the previous board meeting because supporters of Ward cited the Constitution protecting Ward’s First Amendment rights, again claimed to be a victim saying “this whole effort… is to come at Traci O’Neal Ellis.”
For taxpayers who believe elected officials who vote on how their taken money is spent should be held accountable, Ellis said:.
“I’ve long, long lived by the premise that for in order for you to embarrass me I would have to respect your opinion first. That’s not the case here,” said Ellis who added: “I welcome the scrutiny by all means Mrs. Ward, and anybody else. File an attorney general complaint. Get at me.”
In contrast, Ward did not engage in the personal politics saying: “Recently, 112 legislators in the Illinois House, and 55 legislators in the Illinois Senate, on a bi-partisan basis, agreed with me, unanimously. Consider how rare it is for something in Springfield to be done unanimously.”
Ellis claimed transparency will have a “chilling effect” and that it “would prevent anyone from taking a principled stand against something,” but Ward said HB4630 “is a victory for transparency, and that is the only principle that should win the day, transparency.”
Despite fighting against transparency, Kerr said: “I too am in favor of transparency, but I have huge concerns about how this has torn apart this board.”
Kerr said she feels this board may not be able to have any more self evaluations.
Holt said: “I still believe wholeheartedly that it is the Constitutional duty to be transparent and open. So I welcome this, and quite frankly I think future boards are going to welcome being able to review as well and follow their Constitutional duties.”
In thanking the general assembly for HB4630, Holt said: “It was a great day when it passed both the legislators. I think that it welcomes good government and transparency to all elected officials in Illinois”
Costello said the board self evaluations are important, “but I think that also we need to govern ourselves by saying it’s not about personalities. It’s about the issues and what’s the best for U-46. Anything outside of that really has no part in board evaluation because we’re not here for any one of the seven of us.”
“We need to focus on what’s the best for U-46, and more importantly what’s best for the taxpayer,” Costello added.
Ellis disagreed that it’s about U-46 and those who fund the district, but rather it’s also about her. She said that “board dynamics and interpersonal relationships absolutely play a role… on our ability to govern with some sense of decency and some decorum.”
Decorum and decency have not been part of Ellis’ repertoire on the board as during her time on this board and the previous board she has scrutinized members of the public during board meetings and has questioned Ward’s intelligence and called her a racist with nary a peep from the board’s leadership. Even at the June 6 meeting, Ellis made mocking gestures to one of the public speakers and also interacted with her supporters in the audience as Smith and Ward discussed the process of listening to the recording.
As Ellis has claimed transparency as being a “chilling effect,” she has asked her supporters to come to a meeting and criticize Ward for simply having a different belief then hers.
The entire board will likely hold a special Saturday board meeting in closed session for the entire board to listen to the recording.