[authors: Brian Crowley and Maria Mazza]
In a recent binding opinion, the Public Access Counselor (PAC) of the Office of the Attorney General found that a village board’s discussion of budgetary matters during a closed meeting violated the Open Meetings Act (OMA).
The board’s personnel committee and finance committee held closed meetings pursuant to Section 2(c)(1) of the OMA, which permits a public body to meet in closed session to discuss “the appointment, employment, compensation, discipline, performance or dismissal of specific employees of the public body.” Although the committees discussed individual employees, the committees also discussed budget cuts, which is not a topic that may be discussed in closed session.
The PAC noted that the use of the phrase “specific employees of the public body” limits the scope of the exception to the discussion of the relative merits or the conduct of individual employees. The exception was not intended to allow the discussion of fiscal matters even though such matters may directly or indirectly impact the employees of the public body. While a board can discuss the merits of individual employees in the context of making employment decisions required by budgetary issues during a closed session, the underlying budgetary discussions leading to such decisions cannot be discussed during a closed session.
Although the board did discuss specific employees, significant portions of the closed meetings involved discussions of broader budgetary matters, including staffing needs, the impact of staffing reductions, and the services most valuable to village residents. Since personnel expenses are often a significant part of a public body’s budget, the discussion of budgetary issues will often impact staffing decisions. According to the PAC, however, Section 2(c)(1) of the OMA was not intended to allow public bodies to discuss fiscal issues in closed session even though such issues may impact staffing. Accordingly, the PAC found that the village violated the OMA and ordered the village to release the portions of the minutes of the closed meetings that contained discussions that were outside of the scope of the exception.
This binding opinion demonstrates that the PAC narrowly construes what matters may be discussed in closed session. A public body’s closed session discussions should remain focused and should not veer into other areas that are inappropriate for closed session.