Last month, the Public Access Counselor (PAC) of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion finding that the Board of Education of Springfield School District 186 improperly discussed the planned demolition of a school building in closed session. The decision is instructive to public bodies because it defines the scope and content of closed session discussions allowed under the Open Meetings Act (OMA).
The closed session discussion at issue regarded a proposal by a community group for the renovation and adaptive reuse of a school building scheduled for demolition within one week. The Board argued that the closed session discussion was not subject to the OMA because it was not a “meeting” under the OMA. Specifically, it argued that the discussion consisted of only a recitation of the status of the current project, rather than a substantive discussion regarding the demolition of the school. Additionally, the Board argued that if its closed session was a meeting under the OMA, then such discussions were exempted by Section 2(c)(5) of the OMA which “permits a public body to hold a closed meeting to discuss the purchase or lease of real property for use of the public body.”
After viewing the minutes as well as the recording of the closed session, the PAC concluded that the Board did violate the OMA. Specifically, the PAC pointed out that the topic of discussion was whether to reconsider the proposal for an adaptive reuse of the school building. And, during that discussion several board members commented on the proposal substantively. Additionally, the PAC found the exception to the OMA for the purchase or lease of real estate did not apply because the possibility of purchasing or leasing a specific parcel of the property was never raised in the discussion. As a result, the Board of Education was directed to make the recording and minutes of the meeting available to the public.
This opinion serves as caution that the PAC will strictly construe exceptions to the OMA. As a result, public bodies must continue to be mindful that closed session discussions are to be strictly limited to only those topics specifically exempted from the requirement that discussions of public business be open to the public.
* Jamel Greer is a third-year law student at Loyola University Chicago School of Law.