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Does MCC's special meeting comply with the Open Meetings Act?

It looks like the McHenry County College Board of Trustees tried to pull the ol' Release News Late Friday if You Want it Buried Trick.

How utterly not surprising.

As reporter Chelsea McDougall wrote in today's newspaper, the lame-duck board late Friday announced a special meeting for Tuesday evening to consider extending the contract of President Vicky Smith.

The notice came three days after voters filled three open seats with reform-minded candidates, who ousted two longtime incumbents in the process. The new members on the seven-member board will be seated next week, at the regular April 25 meeting.

The notice was time-stamped 4:38 p.m. Friday afternoon, McDougall told me. That's 8 minutes after quittin' time for most government employees, and in this case, that's pretty much the latest time that a government can post a meeting and comply with the Illinois Open Meetings Act without asking some poor sap to work on the weekend.

In the journalism world, this is one of the oldest tricks in the book for a government or public business that has to release news that they would rather not.

You release bad news at the end of business Friday, in the hopes that either a) the reporters have all taken off for the bar and it doesn't get released, or b) the story is left to the scared intern who's barely old enough to shave and will write a 3-inch brief tucked somewhere on page B-7 below the ad for the big and tall men's shop.

Seeing as how this story ended up on Monday's front page, I'd chalk this one up in the fail column.

While I can't read minds, I have no doubt that MCC officials late last week were well aware of the perception that this meeting will have.

This perception issue just reared its head on our front page not too long ago, when McHenry County Board members expressed concerns that the embattled Mental Health Board might try to hire a new executive director before the board president stepped down and three new members were appointed. One of the former Mental Health Board president's last acts was to assure the County Board and the public that this would not happen.

Judging by the comments on McDougall's story, the emails in my inbox and the tone of my blog post, I'll say for the record that the MCC officials in question probably hit that perception nail right on the head.

I won't say that I'm disappointed – the dictionary definition of "disappoint" is someone or something failing to fulfill one's hopes and expectations. Sorry to say, I fully expect MCC to do stuff like this - it's all but wired into its DNA.

Again, to save us all from a patronizing and folderol-filled guest column, I cite examples of MCC's many open-government shortcomings here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Is this Tuesday meeting legal? Yes. But is it right? We'll see whether this one gets added to the growing pile.

If you're interested, this meeting starts at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Room A-217 of the college, 8900 Route 14, Crystal Lake.

•••

I've received two questions regarding how this meeting meshes with the Open Meetings Act. I'll answer them below.
• Does the board have to provide copies of its packet to the public at Tuesday's meeting?
No. The Open Meetings Act does not mandate that. However, the packet is available under the Freedom of Information Act.

• The agenda does not specifically state that a vote will be taken. Is that a problem? If trustees take a vote Tuesday, that's a good question.

While the agenda (you can read it here) states "contract extension for the president," it does not explicitly state that a vote will be taken on the matter.

As I wrote here, a new Open Meetings Act provision took effect Jan. 1, which requires that an agenda include the "general subject matter" of any issue that will be up for a final vote.

(As an interesting aside, one of the examples I cited as to why this law is needed came from an agenda from ... drum roll please ... MCC!)

In my opinion, the agenda clearly meets the "general subject matter" requirement. But the $64,000 question (or to be a smart aleck, the $42 million question) is whether the agenda should state that final action could indeed be taken – in other words, is the item for voting that night or for discussion only?

Again going back to the Mental Health Board issue, County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill asked the Public Health and Human Services Committee to revote on its recommended appointees for this very reason, so that they could not be legally challenged later. The agenda from the revote explicitly stated that a vote would be taken.

Because the law on this matter is ambiguous, it will probably take a ruling from the Attorney General's Public Access Counselor as to whether a matter for a vote must explicitly be labeled as such.

Let's ask her, shall we?.

Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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