CRYSTAL LAKE – McHenry County College’s trustees who stated their interest in improving transparency was in closed session this week when security officials asked members of the public to leave not just the meeting room, but the entire campus.
A quartet of residents said Friday that they were asked to leave the college about 10:30 p.m. Thursday, while the college board of trustees still was in session.
College officials said it was a mix of misunderstandings and college policy that led to the ejection, while impacted residents said it was a violation of their right to attend a public meeting.
“If they would have asked me [to leave], I would have told them to go fly a kite,” said George Lowe, chairman of the college board of trustees. “It should have not been done. It’s wrong; I didn’t know about it.”
College spokeswoman Christina Haggerty said the board late Thursday evening entered into executive session – a private portion of a public meeting that allows for confidential debate – and audience members were waiting in the hallway outside the boardroom.
While they were waiting, security guards asked the small group to leave.
“It is standard procedure at MCC from a safety and security standpoint that at 10 o’clock our security force secures all buildings on campus,” Haggerty said.
Anyone who is not authorized – either staff or faculty members – to be on campus is asked to leave, Haggerty said.
“They weren't aware of the Open Meetings Act and the ability of the people outside the board room to be there,” she continued. “Had they known, had they had more information about the fact that was the legal right of those folks, they may have reacted [differently.]”
In addition, local political blogger Cal Skinner attempted to take photos of the proceedings through the windows that look into the board room before security officials asked him to stop. Skinner’s picture-taking led to a resolution at the college prohibiting flash photography and caused him to be removed from a Prairie Grove School District board meeting last spring.
The photographs were both disruptive to proceedings and undermined participants’ right to confidentiality, MCC attorney Sandra Kerrick said.
“He was trying to take pictures through the glass of a Power Point that a man was presenting, which had to be a confidential presentation,” she said. “The whole reason there is a closed session is some things have to be confidential.
“That’s why there is a closed session.”
Skinner had a different take.
“I’m trying to find out why they are there,” he said. “These folks have something big to hide.”
The state’s Open Meetings Act mandates that publicly funded bodies conduct their business during public meetings.
It lists 24 exceptions in which a board may enter into a private session, generally related to personnel matters, litigation and pending real estate transactions.
While a board has a right to ask the public to leave during a closed session, the public also has the right to wait outside for the board to reconvene in a public forum. If it is to vote on any item discussed in private session, under the act, the board must cast that ballot in public session.
It also must adjourn as a public body.
Iris Bryan, a Woodstock resident and the publisher of the Town Crier newsletter, was “fuming” over the security call.
“We’re the employers; we’re the taxpayers,” Bryan said. “They are supposed to be able to come out of closed session and into the open, whether they take any action or not.”
Bryan, a longtime supporter of the college and attendee at board meetings, was awaiting the return to open session, ironically, to congratulate the trustees on their decision to be more transparent by posting board packets online.
“As far as I know, they are the second [government] in McHenry County that does that much, which I thought was a feather in their hat,” she said.
First Assistant State’s Attorney Tom Carroll said the eviction was “troubling.”
He added that the onus falls on the local governing body to prevent people from looking in on private sessions and even taking pictures of the happenings from the outside.
MCC’s Haggerty said the college already had investigated that option. It also is taking steps to prevent any future misunderstandings.
“Moving forward, there will be a more consistent plan driven from the president to tell security that, in these specific incidences within this meeting space, people are allowed to stay until that board adjourns,” she said.