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6/12/2013 9:18:00 AM Column: Get 'em in, get 'em out
Tom Collins NT Senior Writer
It was alternately gratifying and frustrating when Mendota Elementary school board was chastised for breaking the Open Meetings Act. Why gratifying? We at the NewsTribune have suspected for some time that this kind of thing goes on more than people may think. It was frustrating, too, because the state took months to act and didn’t really do anything about it. To briefly recap, an assistant Illinois attorney general issued a May 9 ruling that Mendota Elementary did not adhere to the law when it closed the doors at a 2012 board meeting. The ruling indicated the board properly invoked the OMA in closing the doors, but then strayed into matters that “were not properly discussed in a meeting closed to the public.” While the attorney general’s office found there were OMA violations, the office issued only a non-binding opinion. There will be no sanctions for Mendota Elementary. All of this would be acceptable — and I do believe Mendota officials didn’t intend to break the law — except that Mendota was advised to rein in closed sessions years ago. In a 2008 package, the NewsTribune procured two years’ worth of meeting minutes from nearly two dozen school districts to see how they managed closed session. I spearheaded the project and held out the proposition that districts are obliged to be transparent by conducting as many action items as possible before entering closed session and then limiting the time spent behind closed doors. The analysis showed many of our local school districts conduct themselves with commendable transparency. Ottawa Township High School stood out for completing nearly all action items in open session (one vote taken after closed session in two years) and keeping the doors shut for laudably short durations. Dimmick, Tonica, Deer Park and Ottawa Elementary school districts also stood out for either limiting time in closed session or for limiting actions taken after closed session. Mendota Elementary, however, wasn’t among the exemplary districts. We handed out letter grades in a district-by-district assessment (A+ for Ottawa High; Fs for two districts with incomplete records) and Mendota Elementary got a C. Here was the NT’s verdict: “They get no points for brevity. Meetings average three hours, 47 minutes and they close the doors an average 91 minutes. Upon returning from closed session, they take an average three votes per month. Only meetings in Lostant were longer, both in open session and in closed.” It’s worth noting the Mendota board has changed members since the NT analysis and that superintendent Kristen School wasn’t with Mendota Elementary in 2008. However, School at that time was superintendent of Waltham Elementary, which was found to have deficiencies of its own. Waltham’s agenda was (and remains) structured so that the bulk of its action items are acted upon after closed session. (I’ve implored Waltham time and again to modify the agenda and do so again now.) A superintendent must not only know the law but exhort to the board to adhere to it. In any case, the AG’s recent action (if it can be called that) shows us now why brevity matters. Mendota Elementary strayed from a legitimate course of discussion and then veered into topics meant to be discussed with the doors open. It may have been an innocent mistake, but it was an avoidable one. The Legislature seems to have tried to avert such behavior by requiring districts to make audio recordings in closed session. Perhaps the tapes were meant to have a chilling effect on going off-topic; but it is human nature to forget that the tapes are rolling and to let your hair down when the doors are closed. Any government body is under an obligation to know the law and be self-policing when members of the public are excluded from the proceedings. That means avoiding closed session and staying behind closed doors as briefly as possible. Get ‘em in — and then get ‘em out. Mendota Elementary didn’t do that. Instead, they broke the law.