PRAIRIE GROVE – A time limit on when the public can challenge what a public entity does behind closed doors “just defies common sense,” an open government advocate said.
The Illinois Open Meetings Act lays out what governmental boards are allowed – and not allowed – to talk about in closed session, and the law gives residents 60 days from when a possible violation occurs to file a request for review with the Attorney General’s Office.
The Northwest Herald submitted a request for review after receiving minutes from closed-session meetings of the Prairie Grove District 46 school board, but last week, the Attorney General’s Office responded, saying it did not have the authority to review any potential violations because of the 60-day time limit.
The board met nine times behind closed doors from Nov. 13 to April 23, and the minutes for six of those closed sessions were released at a board meeting in June.
Based on the minutes, it appears that the school board possibly discussed what should have been public policy decisions, including the reorganization of district positions and changes in the junior high’s master schedule in light of declining enrollment and teacher retirements.
The minutes were reviewed by the district’s attorney before being released, and no questions or concerns were raised, Superintendent Lynette Zimmer said in an email after the release.
Public bodies have to review minutes from closed sessions for release twice a year, and because those release dates mean minutes aren’t always released within that 60-day time period, it can “sometimes be very frustrating,” said Don Craven, an attorney for the Illinois Press Association.
“Unless you have someone on the inside who blows the whistle, it’s not very helpful,” said Maryam Judar, the executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center, adding that the time limit is “very problematic” because residents often don’t find out a violation occurred until long after the meeting happened.
The Citizen Advocacy Center helps residents file record requests under the Freedom of Information Act and challenge governments when they deny those requests or violate the Open Meetings Act.
Judar would like to see the law changed either to remove the cap or, if a cap needs to be put in place, start the clock from when discovery happens.
The Illinois Press Association has raised the issue, Craven said, adding that there is also a need for finality for public bodies.
“That [the review of closed-session minutes] happens every six months, and you’re now eight months out from the day of the decision,” he said. “You’re then going to go back and start things all over again? That is very difficult for a public body.”