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Closed Session Discussion of Elected Officials Duties and Salaries
Public Access Opinion 18-015
The McClean County Board’s Finance Committee (Committee) violated OMA by improperly discussing the duties and salaries of elected officials in closed session. On June 6, 2018, the Committee held a closed meeting using the Section 2(c)(1) exception in OMA, which allows a public body to hold closed meetings to discuss “the appointment, employment, compensation, discipline, performance, or dismissal of specific employees of the public body.” The problem, however, is that the Committee used this exception to discuss the duties and salaries of two elected officials – the county coroner and the county auditor. The Illinois Attorney General has previously held, in a binding opinion, that Section 2(c)(1) does not authorize closed session discussions concerning occupants of public office. PAO 17-13.

In response, the Committee argued that countywide elected or appointed department heads meet the definition of an employee for purposes of OMA, but the PAC was not swayed by this argument. First, the PAC noted that Section 2(c)(3) of OMA permits closed session discussion of “the discipline, performance or removal of the occupant of a public office, when the public body is given power to remove the occupant under law or ordinance” and the Committee did not use this exception. Second, the PAC noted that Section 2(d) of OMA defines public office for purposes of Section 2 as “a position created by or under the Constitution or laws of this State, the occupant of which is charged with the exercise of some portion of the sovereign power of this State” and that the offices of county coroner and county auditor are both created under the Illinois Constitution. Because the county coroner and county auditor are not public employees, the PAC held that the Committee violated OMA by improperly using the Section 2(c)(1) exception to enter closed session. The PAC ordered the Committee to make publicly available the verbatim recording of the June 6, 2018 closed session meeting.

This opinion is binding only to the parties involved and may be appealed pursuant to State law.

Duty to Respond to FOIA Requests
Public Access Opinion 18-014
The Cook County Assessor’s Office (Assessor’s Office) violated FOIA by failing to comply with, deny in whole or in part, or otherwise appropriately respond to a FOIA request. On June 22, 2018, the Requestor submitted a FOIA request for certain information regarding 2017 property tax exemptions for a specific property. Receiving no response by July 11, 2018, the Requestor contacted the PAC. The PAC sent two letters to the Assessor’s Office but received no response. Then, On August 2, 2018, the Assessor’s Office’s FOIA Officer spoke to a PAC attorney and assured the PAC it would respond. As of October 18, 2018, the Assessor’s Office had not responded to the PAC.

The PAC held that the Assessor’s Office violated Section 3(d) of FOIA by failing, within five business days after receiving the June 22, 2018 FOIA request, to provide the requested records, extend the time for its response pursuant to Section 3(e) of FOIA, or deny the request in whole or in part. The PAC ordered the Assessor’s Office to provide the Requestor with all responsive records, subject to appropriate exemptions under Section 7 of FOIA.

This opinion is binding only to the parties involved and may be appealed pursuant to State law.

Improper Denial of Request as Unduly Burdensome
Public Access Opinion 18-013
The Office of the Governor (Governor’s Office) violated FOIA by improperly denying a request as unduly burdensome. On July 12, 2018, the Requestor submitted a FOIA request seeking any emails sent by or to certain identified individuals pertaining to nominations for appointment to any of 14 Illinois public bodies. The Requestor also asked for documents prepared by or in the possession of the identified individuals pertaining to such nominations, but limited the scope of the request to January 1, 2016 through June 30, 2018. On July 19, 2018, the Governor’s Office responded that the FOIA request was unduly burdensome pursuant to Section 3(g) of FOIA because it was “overbroad and vague” because documents could be “directly or indirectly related to a nomination for a board appointment without mentioning the board or potential appointee by name.” The Governor’s Office gave the Requestor an opportunity to narrow his request. On July 20, 2018, the Requestor narrowed his request and stated he was willing to work out a reasonable timeline for production of the request. The Governor’s Office still denied the FOIA request as unduly burdensome, stating its preliminary search yielded more than 44,000 potentially responsive emails and that a manual review of the emails would be necessary to respond to the FOIA request.

Upon review, the PAC first analyzed and rejected the Governor’s Office’s contention that the Requestor’s initial FOIA request was “overbroad and vague.” The PAC found that “a requestor needs only to identify the records being requested by describing their contents” and that FOIA did not require the Requestor to furnish the Governor’s Office with search terms to locate the requested records. Because the FOIA request specifically identified both the individuals who sent/received the emails and the subject matter of them, it reasonably identified the public records sought and was not impermissibly vague or overbroad.

Next, the PAC reviewed the Governor’s Office’s preliminary email search, and found it was not limited in any way to the board appointments. The Governor’s Office explained that it could not further limit its preliminary email search because adding other terms would exclude many relevant emails. However, it turns out that the Governor’s Office did try a more limited search which yielded only 1,783 emails. The Governor’s Office explained that it did not tell the Requestor about the more limited search results because even sifting through those results would be unduly burdensome. The PAC held that the Governor’s Office had not demonstrated how reviewing 1,783 potentially responsive emails would be unduly burdensome, let alone how any potential burden would outweigh the significant public interest in the records. The PAC ordered the Governor’s Office to provide the Requestor with copies of the responsive emails, subject to appropriate redactions under Section 7 of FOIA.

This opinion is binding only to the parties involved and may be appealed pursuant to State law.

Improper Closed Session Discussion of Budget and Layoffs
Public Access Opinion 18-012
A public university (University) violated Section 2(a) of OMA by improperly discussing its budget, layoffs, and related matters in closed session during its June 28, 2018 meeting. The Request for Review alleged that the closed session discussion did not discuss specific employees – which is permitted by Section 2(c)(1) of OMA – but instead improperly discussed layoffs in general and/or whole classes of employees.

Reviewing the verbatim recording of the closed session, the PAC discovered that the University briefly discussed one particular employee but spent the “overwhelming majority” of the closed session discussing budgetary matters and considerations applicable to categories of employees, not the merits or conduct of individual employees. Not only does OMA prohibit such general discussions during closed session, but the PAC pointed to one of its 2015 opinions where it found that “a discussion of eliminating a position itself which does not consider the performance of the employee or whether a particular employee should occupy the position, is not within the scope of the section 2(c)(1) exception.” PAC 15-7. Accordingly, the PAC held that the University violated Section 2(a) of OMA by discussing in closed session matters outside the scope of the Section 2(c)(1) exception. The PAC ordered the University to make public a copy of the both the closed session minutes for and verbatim recording of the closed session portion of the June meeting.

This opinion is binding only to the parties involved and may be appealed pursuant to State law.

Restrictions on Public Comment During Board Meetings Did Not Violate Free Speech
Vega v. Chicago Board of Education, 2018 WL 3819113 (N.D. Il. 2018)
In July 2014 Rosemary Vega (Vega) was removed from a public meeting of the Chicago Board of Education (Board) for “disruptive behavior,” and she was subsequently prohibited from attending any Board meetings until March 2017. Vega sued the Board, alleging her removal and prohibition from attending meetings violated her First Amendment Free Speech rights.

Reviewing the facts, the Court discovered that over a fourth month period, Vega had demonstrated “a persistent and escalating willingness to cause disturbances during Board meetings.” In March 2014, Vega exceeded her allotted two-minute speaking time and had to be ushered from the podium. In May 2014, Vega stated she would “get kicked out of the Board meeting every month for two minutes for the next how many years you got of life.” In July 2014, Vega violated the Board’s Public Participation Guidelines by rushing up the dais, yelling at a Board member, shaking her fist, and interrupting another speaker. Vega’s actions were perceived as threatening by security officers and she refused to leave when asked to.

The Court found that the Board’s enforcement of its Guidelines did not violate the First Amendment because they were content-neutral, and were not speaker- or content-based. The Court also found that the Board’s 2.5 year ban on Vega attending Board meetings was proper because it was narrowly tailored – it “did not burden more of Vega’s speech than necessary to maintain order during Board meetings or to ensure that members of the public who wished to address the Board in accordance with the Guidelines had that opportunity.” Finally, the Court found that even when Vega was prohibited from attending Board meetings, she had ample alternative channels of communication left, including meeting individually with Board members during their office hours and the ability to submit written testimony to the Board.

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