The Examiner U-46 News Feed
U-46 Board continues to debate OMA revision
By Seth Hancock
Despite passage of House Bill 4630 by the Illinois General Assembly, which has been signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner, some on the School District U-46 Board of Education appear to still want to put hurdles in front of transparency.
HB4630, which received unanimous support by the state legislature, amends the Open Meetings Act (OMA) requiring “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.”
That bill directly affects U-46 as board member Jeanette Ward has sought access to previous closed session tapes since her second meeting on the board in May 2015 but has been denied access by the board’s majority which even changed its policy, under Section 2.201, in order to limit transparency.
However, because of the passage of HB4630 and a successful lawsuit by Ward to save a Jan. 25, 2014 tape, which former board member Frank Napolitano claimed potential OMA violations occurred, from destruction, the board’s majority finally relented to allow her access which the board held a special closed session meeting on June 25 to listen to the recording together. According to the June 25 minutes, board members Phil Costello and Veronica Noland, who was on the board in 2014, did not attend that special meeting.
Although the board’s policy requiring a board member to receive permission by the majority of the board to listen to previous closed session recordings is now invalid because of HB4630, the board’s president Donna Smith still wants board members to come through her to receive access as she made a suggestion at a regular meeting on Monday, July 18.
“Since the governor had signed the bill and we all listened to the closed session minute recording, in the future, after looking at the bill and reading it through, it really doesn’t say anything except that any board member can listen to any (recording) at any time,” Smith said.
“It doesn’t have to be in the policy, but as a courtesy to the administration… come through me, or you could email (U-46 CEO) Tony (Sanders) and he can call me,” Smith added as well as that “the law to me sounds like” a board member can simply ask Miguel Rodriguez, the district’s chief legal officer, to listen to tapes.
Well, that appears to be exactly what HB4630 allows but Smith along with Sue Kerr, the board’s vice president, and board member Traci Ellis, appear to continue to interpret the law differently.
At question is whether or not a board member needs to be supervised while listening to a closed session tape.
Ward said: “I don’t believe the law says that somebody has to be there.”
Smith replied that “yes, yes it does” and Kerr added “it was either administrator or fellow elected official” despite the fact that nowhere in the law does it mention supervision of board members while listening to tapes.
“Yeah, they oversee the process,” Ward said. “It doesn’t mean they have to be there physically when you’re listening to the meeting. That was my understanding.”
Later Kerr read the Illinois Association of School Board’s summary of HB4630 which stated: “Access to these records shall be granted in the public body’s main office or official storage location, in the presences of a records secretary, and administrative official of the public body or any elected official of the public body.”
“Right, and my reading of that is it’s stored in the presence of. It doesn’t mean listen to in the presence of,” Ward noted.
Kerr replied: “It says access to, which is listening.”
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines access as “a way of getting near, at, or to something or someone” or “a way of being able to use or get something.” Nowhere is supervision or listening appear in the definition.
Ward said that “yeah, someone has to be in control of the access,” but nobody has to supervise while listening.
Ellis said: “So you mean an administrator or elected official to hand over the tapes. That makes no sense.”
Ellis, Kerr and Smith all ignored how the board and district treated access on other closed session recordings that were granted to board members before HB4630’s passage. Costello was given access to a closed session tape from a meeting he missed and told The Examiner an administrator set him up in a conference room and left while he listened.
Smith eventually said the board will have to meet in committee again to change its policy and while she, Ellis and Kerr attempt to interpret that bill to include supervision, it appears that they, along with Noland who voted for the initial policy change to require majority approval for access, have been misinterpreting the OMA from the start.
“As we now know, the board’s majority and our counsel were incorrect,” said Ward who added: “The fact that legislators expressed bewilderment as to why they even needed to spend time discussing this affirms that access was always the right of all newly elected officials across the state.
Rodriguez told the board in May 2015, when Ward first sought access to recordings, that a board member would need to submit in writing and seek board approval for the tapes which sparked the policy change requiring such hurdles to be cleared, which was approved 4-3 in September 2015. In October 2015 was the first time Ward sought access specifically to the Jan. 25, 2014 tape because of the alleged OMA violations, but she was denied.
Rep. Jeanne Ives, who sponsored HB4630, told the U-46 Board at its Monday, June 6 meeting that legislators were “very concerned to hear that duly elected officials throughout Illinois were denied simple access to closed session minutes and recordings.”