Government watchdogs will get a belated stocking stuffer Tuesday when it comes to open meetings.
It could have been a full-fledged Christmas present had lawmakers not watered down the legislation’s original language.
House Bill 4687, which takes effect Jan. 1, somewhat strengthens the Illinois Open Meetings Act, requiring local government meeting agendas to set forth the “general subject matter” of any issue that will be up for a final vote. But just how strong the improvement ends up being may be up to the office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
Bill sponsor Sandra Pihos, R-Glen Ellyn, called the bill a “step in the right direction” toward greater transparency when Gov. Pat Quinn signed it into law in July. She filed the bill in response to constituent complaints about meeting agendas that reveal little, if anything, about issues coming up for final votes.
The Northwest Herald in recent months has highlighted local meeting agendas that arguably fail to meet a minimum standard of informing the public.
An April 21 agenda for a special meeting of the McHenry County College Board of Trustees described a vote to spend $750,000 to buy land for future expansion as a “resolution to make offer.” An Aug. 30 special meeting of the Lakemoor Village Board described an impending vote dealing with liquor licenses as “an amendment to ordinance 10-O-22.”
In essence, House Bill 4687 allows citizens who believe an agenda item up for a vote is too vague to file a complaint with the attorney general’s Public Access Counselor, who has power to enforce open-government laws and can issue binding opinions to clear up ambiguities.
Given that “general subject matter” is open to interpretation – an ordinance number is descriptive to the government that wrote it but not most taxpayers – it likely will fall to a binding opinion to determine the minimum amount of description to pass legal muster.
The original version of Pihos’ bill required meeting agendas to be “sufficiently descriptive” to give the public “reasonable notice” of agenda items to be either discussed or voted upon. But the bill met with resistance from the Springfield lobbying groups representing many of Illinois’ 7,000 units of government.
The Illinois Municipal League opposed the bill’s original language, calling it a “litigation minefield” that could open up any government to legal action based on individuals’ interpretations of how descriptive the meeting agenda is.
A Northwest Herald investigation last year revealed that government lobbying groups, financed by tax dollars, actively support bills that curtail open government laws and oppose bills, such as House Bill 4687, aimed at strengthening them.
The public access counselor has issued 26 binding opinions regarding the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts since being empowered to do so by a 2010 overhaul of the laws. Fifteen of those opinions were issued this year, one on behalf of a Marengo resident who spent a year trying to get a two-page state disciplinary report about a real estate agent.
House Bill 4687 also sets down more stringent requirements for public bodies to give notice of their meetings. Governments, which already are required to post agendas 48 hours in advance of meetings, must make sure they are accessible for the entire 48-hour period, such as online or in a front window of the building where the meeting is taking place.
Public officials must meet another legal mandate by Jan. 1 under the Open Meetings Act. All elected and appointed members of public bodies subject to the act have until the end of the year to complete the electronic training on the act set up by the public access counselor.
About this series
“No More Excuses” is an ongoing Northwest Herald series regarding the public’s right to know in Illinois.
What it means
An improvement to the Illinois Open Meetings Act takes effect Jan. 1, requiring meeting agendas to more clearly describe any item that will be up for a final vote.
On the Net
The legislation is House Bill 4687, which can be found at the Illinois General Assembly website at www.ilga.gov.
To learn more about the state Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts, visit foia.ilattorneygeneral.net.