The Examiner U-46 News Feed
Sparks fly after review of U-46 meeting tape
By Seth Hancock
Board of Education members in School District U-46 may have free reign to slander the taxpayers of the district during closed session meetings.
The board listened to the Jan. 25, 2014 closed session tape at a special board meeting on Saturday, June 25 which lasted nearly nine hours according to the meeting minutes. Board members Phil Costello and Veronica Noland, who was on the board in 2014, did not attend that meeting according to the minutes.
The impetus for that meeting was former board member Frank Napolitano alleging Open Meetings Act (OMA) violations occurred, and new board member Jeanette Ward requested access to the tape. Initially, the board denied access, including changing its policy’s Section 2.201, but had to relent with the passage of House Bill 4630 by Illinois’ General Assembly.
Donna Smith, the board’s president, brought up HB4630 during the board meeting on Monday, July 18 which sparked a sometimes heated exchange between Ward, who stuck to the issue of transparency, and Traci Ellis, who made things personal and claimed she was a victim.
Ellis asked: “So, since we wasted eight hours back in June sitting listening to them, are we doing anything with it, do we know?”
Smith said “no” to which Ellis asked “Jeanette, you got any plans?” Ward replied “well, I suppose we’ll see” which Ellis responded: “I suppose we will. I was wondering since it was such a waste of time.”
From there, Smith had no control over the discussion as Ellis consistently interrupted Ward and even pounded the table at one point with no attempts for order from Smith.
Ward said seeking access to closed session recordings “was never about ‘gotcha’s’ or a ‘witch hunt’” but rather it’s “always been about transparency.”
On the 2014 tape, Ward said: “Let me state clearly, I do feel that the meeting potentially violated the OMA. At the very least inappropriate discussions took place, in the sense that some discussions did not focus on board self-evaluation but on maligning a certain member of the community by name who was not there to defend himself, accusing him of being a part of a group that is the quote ‘21st century brand of the KKK.’”
Ward called that “abhorrent behavior” and “for any board member to slander a citizen of the district simply because a board member disagrees with that citizen is not only inappropriate for closed board meetings, but it is a lack of character on the part of the entire board to remain silent, speak out in agreement or simply do nothing.”
Noting that the board’s policy appears to explicitly allow closed session tapes to be made public by tasking the board to “decide which, if any, no longer require confidentiality and should be made available for public inspection,” Ward asked that the Jan. 25, 2014 meeting be made public. She also urged the General Assembly to remove board self-evaluations, the subject of that meeting, as well as a superintendent’s evaluation for Jose Torres, from the list of subjects allowed to be discussed behind closed doors.
Ward said she’s not interested in getting anyone in legal trouble, she just wants transparency.
Although not mentioned by Ward, Ellis said it was all about her and “anything that you think Traci O’Neal Ellis did wrong, by all means come after me. I invite you to. So your threat, veiled or otherwise, about what won’t happen in the future, you don’t manage me.”
Ward reiterated: “It is not about getting at a certain board member. It’s about transparency.”
Despite Ward attempting to use one option that wouldn’t require bringing in the courts, voting to make the tape public, Ellis consistently interrupted Ward to tell her to “use your recourse” and said Napolitano lied. Ellis, who referred to herself six times in the third person, said it was all about attacking her.
Ward said: “I find it interesting that you’re posing as the victim here when during closed session a member of the public was attacked by a board member, who is the arm of government, and yet that person seems to be insinuating that they’re the victim.”
Ellis said she didn’t care about transparency because Ward would have wanted to listen to all previous recordings if it was about transparency. Ward has in fact asked for access to all previous tapes starting from her second meeting on the board.
“This was an attack against Traci O’Neal Ellis and don’t you dare, well you can, you’re free to do whatever you want to do, but I’m telling you if you think I did something wrong and violated the (OMA) you’ve got all sorts of legal recourse. Use it,” Ellis said.
Ellis several times claimed that Ward wasted her time by listening to that 2014 tape, but Ward pointed out that “there was no need to waste everyone’s time if I had been granted access” from the start. Ellis was not required to go to the special meeting.
Smith said that “I’ve heard you Jeanette and I understand you Traci, but if there is something then we just have to move forward with it,” but Ellis interrupted, her fifth interruption during the discussion, to tell Ward: “You and your cronies are not the only taxpayers in this district. I’m a taxpayer. I support this district, and you all love freedom of speech. And so when you want to talk about attacking someone’s character who supports this district, my character has been attacked and maligned and I support this district.”
Ward’s only semblance of an interruption during the discussion was an “um-hum” when Ellis said she loves “freedom of speech,” and she noted “I don’t believe I ever attacked you in a meeting and accused you of anything.”
Ellis said: “I’m not even going to dignify that with a response.”
The lack of response is likely because Ward has never appeared to attack or accuse Ellis of anything at a meeting while Ellis has attacked Ward as a racist and bigoted among many other attacks which Smith has allowed to go on unchecked throughout but has publicly reprimanded Ward for simply expressing her views.
Because the board ignored Ward’s call to make the tape public, The Examiner gave the other six members a chance to respond if they would make the tape public as well as if Ward’s claim that a member of the public was personally maligned at the 2014 meeting was accurate. Ellis, Noland, Smith and Sue Kerr did not respond.
However, Ellis did post on her public Facebook page on Wednesday, July 20 the allegation “is patently false. Put another way, that’s an outright lie,” despite not denying it at the meeting and even defending such action because she’s a taxpayer.
Board member Cody Holt confirmed that “there was a member of the public who was talked about by a member of the board of education. Any other characterization of the events is a boldfaced lie. Talking about anything other than what is on the agenda is illegal, and I will call out any of my colleagues who deviate from our agenda especially in meetings that are closed to the public.”
Holt said he would vote to make public portions of the tape that are no longer confidential and “in the spirit of transparency and good government, we should look to make public any and all records or recordings where privacy and confidentiality do no longer exist.”
Costello, who could not confirm Ward’s allegation because he did not attend the special meeting, said he decided not to go because “passively listening to a tape offered no constructive insights as to how to improve U-46 education or reduce the taxpayer’s investment,” but he did reiterate that he supported Ward’s right to listen.
Board members should “be held accountable for off-subject related tangents and any unrelated disparaging remarks” during closed sessions Costello said and “by and large, board self-evaluations should be made public.”