Relaxed OMA standards require reasonable accessibility of meetings of public bodies
The Will County Circuit Court denied Plaintiffs’ petition for a Temporary Restraining Order to prohibit the City of Joliet City Council (Joliet) from proceeding with a vote on a controversial land annexation during a meeting held under relaxed Open Meetings Act (OMA) meeting standards due to the COVID-19 pandemic, finding that the vote did not violate OMA.
OMA requires that all meetings of public bodies be open to the public and be held at specific times and places which are convenient and open to the public, meaning they allow for reasonable accessibility. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Governor issued Executive Order 2020-07, suspending the requirement for members of a public body to be physically present and suspending the conditions that would normally limit when remote participation is permitted. Executive Order 2020-07 also encouraged public bodies to provide video, audio, and/or telephonic access to ensure that members of the public could monitor meetings that are “necessary.” Plaintiffs alleged that Joliet’s meeting was not “necessary” because it had nothing to do with pandemic response and there was no indication that residents would be harmed if the vote was postponed. Plaintiffs further alleged that even if the meeting was deemed “necessary,” Joliet had made no effort to make the meeting accessible to people lacking cable TV or internet access because the meeting could only be attended by phone if someone pre-registered online and waited for a call back.
Regarding Plaintiffs’ first allegation, that the meeting was not “necessary,” the Court stated “it would be judicial activism for this Court to tell Joliet what is, and is not, important to Joliet” and that such a matter was for Joliet’s elected officials to decide. Regarding Plaintiffs’ second allegation, that the meeting was not accessible, the Court noted that Joliet had announced the meeting five days in advance, was permitting the public to comment by telephone or email, and the meeting would be shown live on public access television, on Joliet’s website, and through social media. As for people without access to cable television, telephone, or internet, the Court stated that “is a relatively small segment of the population, and the law requires only a reasonable opportunity to participate” and thus Joliet had complied with its OMA obligations. Despite finding for Joliet, public bodies should be cautious in their use of the relaxed OMA standards during the pandemic because the Court disdainfully stated that “[t]he Court was not born yesterday. Having this meeting in the way the City has decided is shady and does a disservice to the public. But that does not make it illegal.”