The agenda for the April 21 meeting of the McHenry County College Board of Trustees described its impending vote to spend $750,000 to buy land for expansion in four words: “Resolution to make offer.”
As a description of the board’s intent to spend tax dollars, it barely merits the label. But from now on, such vague summaries of intended votes may violate the Illinois Open Meetings Act.
House Bill 4687, signed into law last week by Gov. Pat Quinn, amends the act and requires local governments’ meeting agendas to set forth the “general subject matter” of any issue that will be up for a final vote. The bill’s language is weaker than first proposed, but a step in the right direction, said bill sponsor Sandra Pihos, R-Glen Ellyn.
Pihos said she filed the bill in response to constituent complaints that local government meeting agendas revealed little, if anything, about issues coming up for votes.
“We’re not looking to play a ‘gotcha’ game, but if you came to my Springfield office, I could show you agenda items that are one-word lines. ‘Revenues,’ “ Pihos said with a laugh. “I have one agenda item that actually says ‘Rumors.’ “
The law in essence allows citizens who believe an agenda to be too vague to file a complaint with the state Public Access Counselor’s Office, which has binding power to enforce the Open Meetings Act.
The original version of Pihos’ bill required agendas to be “sufficiently descriptive” to give the public “reasonable notice” of agenda items to be considered or voted upon. But lobbying groups representing the state’s 7,000 units of government opposed it.
Among the opponents were the Illinois Municipal League and Metro Counties of Illinois, a lobbying group of the state’s 14 most populous counties. The IML called the original version a “litigation minefield” that could open up any government to a lawsuit over an individual’s interpretation of how descriptive the meeting agenda is.
A Northwest Herald investigation last year revealed that local governments are paying Springfield lobbyists with tax dollars to support legislation curtailing Illinois open-government laws and to fight legislation, such as House Bill 4687, that strengthens them.
In MCC’s case, Pihos said her expectation as the bill’s sponsor would be that the college list on its agenda the fact that it is voting to buy land and the land’s location. She said she is not opposed to revisiting the legislation language if meeting agendas don’t improve.
“We didn’t want to be onerous and be too specific, but be specific enough ... if we need to circle back because we didn’t tighten this up enough, we’ll do that,” Pihos said.
Her bill also strengthened the Open Meetings Act advance notice language. Public bodies, which are already required to post meeting agendas 48 hours in advance, must make sure they are accessible for the entire 48-hour period, such as online or in a front window.
About this series
“No More Excuses” is an ongoing Northwest Herald series on the people’s right to know in Illinois.
On the Net
You can read more about open-government laws on the Opening Doors blog at www.NWHerald.com.
You can learn more about the state’s Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts, and learn how to report violations, at the Attorney General’s website at foia.ilattorneygeneral.net.