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Board of Education of Springfield School District No. 186 v. Attorney General of Illinois

Supreme Court of Illinois

January 20, 2017

THE BOARD OF EDUCATION OF SPRINGFIELD SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 186, Appellee,
v.
THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF ILLINOIS, Appellant.

          JUSTICE GARMAN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Chief Justice Karmeier and Justices Freeman, Thomas, Kilbride, Burke, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          GARMAN JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 On administrative review, the circuit court of Sangamon County reversed the Attorney General's binding opinion finding violations of the Open Meetings Act (Act) (5 ILCS 120/1 et seq. (West 2012)). The appellate court affirmed the judgment of the circuit court. 2015 IL App (4th) 140941.

         ¶ 2 This court granted the Attorney General's petition for leave to appeal pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 315 (eff. Jan. 1, 2015). The Illinois Association of School Boards, Illinois Association of School Administrators, and Illinois Association of School Business Officials filed an amicus curiae brief pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 345 (eff. Sept. 20, 2010), as did the Illinois Municipal League.

         ¶ 3 For the reasons that follow, we affirm the judgment of the appellate court.

         ¶ 4 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 5 Beginning in November 2012, the Board of Education of Springfield School District No. 186 (Board) met in several closed sessions to discuss the possibility of entering into a separation agreement with the then-superintendent of schools, Dr. Walter Milton, Jr. At the January 31, 2013, closed meeting, Milton signed and dated a proposed agreement.

         ¶ 6 At a closed session during the February 4, 2013, meeting, six of the seven board members signed the agreement but did not date it. At that meeting and on several later occasions, the Board's attorney explained to the Board members that they would have to take a public vote on the agreement but that they were bound by its terms not to publicly disclose the details of their discussions or to publicly discuss the terms of the agreement.

         ¶ 7 On February 21, 2013, Ms. Molly Beck, a reporter for the State Journal-Register, filed a request for review with the Public Access Counselor in the Office of the Illinois Attorney General, pursuant to section 3.5 of the Act (5 ILCS 120/3.5(a) (West 2012)), requesting review of alleged violations of the Act, including the signing of the separation agreement without first conducting a public vote to approve it.

         ¶ 8 While this matter was pending, the Board announced the agenda for a public meeting to be held on March 5, 2013. On March 1, 2013, the Board posted the agenda on its website. Under the heading "Roll Call Action Items, " the online agenda listed item 9.1, "Approval of a Resolution regarding the Separation Agreement and Release between Superintendent Dr. Walter Milton, Jr., and the Board of Education." Clicking on this link led to a screen containing the resolution, which stated: "The Board President recommends that the Board of Education of Springfield School District No. 186 vote to approve the Separation Agreement and Release between Dr. Walter Milton Jr. and the Board of Education." This item contained a link to the separation agreement itself, containing the signature of Dr. Milton, dated "1/31/13, " and the undated signatures of six of the seven Board members.

         ¶ 9 At the March 5, 2013, public meeting, the Board president introduced the agenda item by stating: "I have item 9.1, approval of a resolution regarding the separation agreement. The Board President recommends that the Board of Education of Springfield School District No. 186 vote to approve the separation agreement and release between Dr. Walter Milton, Jr., and the Board of Education."

         ¶ 10 The dissenting Board member moved that the matter be tabled, commenting that neither she nor the public were aware of the reasons for taking this action. Her motion was not seconded.

         ¶ 11 The president's motion was then seconded, and she called for discussion. The dissenting board member spoke in support of Dr. Milton, and another board member thanked him for his service to the school district. The matter was called for a roll call vote, and the resolution was approved by a 6 to 1 vote. The previously signed agreement was then dated March 5, 2013.

         ¶ 12 After an investigation, the Attorney General issued a binding opinion on May 21, 2013, finding four violations of the Open Meetings Act: (1) the six board members' signing of the agreement at the February 4, 2013, closed session constituted the taking of a final action in violation of section 2(e) of the Act; (2) even if it was permissible to ratify that action by a vote at an open meeting, the Board violated section 2(e) of the Act at the open meeting by failing to "adequately inform the public of the nature of the matter under consideration or the business being conducted"; (3) the Board failed to create and maintain verbatim recordings of three closed sessions, violating section 2.06(a) of the Act; and (4) the Board failed to summarize discussions of the separation agreement in the minutes of five closed meetings, in violation of section 2.06(e)(3) of the Act.

         ¶ 13 The Board sought administrative review under section 7.5 of the Act (5 ILCS 120/7.5 (West 2012)). The circuit court reversed the Attorney General's conclusion that the Board violated section 2(e) of the Act by unlawfully taking final action on the separation agreement at a closed session, finding that final action was taken at the March 5, 2013, open meeting. The court declined to reach the merits of the issue of the adequacy of the Board's efforts to inform the public and, instead, remanded to the Attorney General for further proceedings to allow the Board to respond to that claim.

         ¶ 14 In its response, the Board's position was that it satisfied the public recital requirement by posting the resolution and the separation agreement on its website with the agenda for the March 5, 2013, open meeting and by reading the resolution aloud at the open meeting before the vote was taken.

         ¶ 15 In a second binding opinion issued in April 2014, the Attorney General found that the Board violated section 2(e) of the Open Meetings Act "by voting to approve the separation agreement during its March 5, 2013, meeting without adequately informing the public of the business being conducted, " because "the Board's posting of the separation agreement on its website did not constitute a public recital during an open meeting" as required by section 2(e). Specifically:

"[A]t the March 5, 2013, meeting, the Board described the nature of the matter under consideration only in vague, general terms by calling for a vote on a motion to approve a separation agreement with Dr. Milton. The public was given no specific information concerning the separation agreement or its terms. In particular, the public was not informed that the separation agreement included a substantial lump sum payment of public funds."

         ¶ 16 The opinion further stated that section 2(e) requires public recitation of both the nature of the action to be taken and other information that will inform the public of the business being conducted. "In context, " the Attorney General's opinion stated, "this language can only be construed to mean that the public body is required to provide a verbal explanation of the significance of its action to members of the public who are present at the meeting before the public body can proceed to consider taking action." Further, the public recital itself "must be verbal and must take place during the public meeting, " and the public body must ensure that "the members of the public in attendance at the meeting receive sufficient 'other information' to understand the business being conducted."

         ¶ 17 The circuit court again reversed the Attorney General's binding opinion, concluding that the website posting of the agenda adequately informed the public of the nature of the business that was to be conducted at the March 5, 2013, open meeting. Thus, the circuit court ruled, by posting the agreement four days prior to the meeting, the Board "did, in fact, publicly recite the matter being considered prior to taking its roll call vote." In addition, the circuit court rejected the premise that section 2(e) requires "that the public body explain the significance of the final action to be taken."

         ¶ 18 The appellate court affirmed the judgment of the circuit court, stating that the undated signing of the settlement agreement by six of the seven board members at the closed meeting did not violate section 2(e)'s prohibition on taking final action at a closed meeting. The appellate court further held that the links on the website posting of the agenda together with the Board president's introduction of the agreement "consistent with the general terms of the agenda" was an adequate public recital. The court also observed that section 2(e) does not "require that the public body provide a detailed explanation about the significance or impact of the proposed final action." The appellate court reached these conclusions based on what it found to be the clear and unambiguous language of the statute, rejecting the Attorney General's argument that the legislative history reveals a more expansive legislative intent. 2015 IL App (4th) 140941.

         ¶ 19 ANALYSIS

         ¶ 20 The Attorney General, as appellant, raised two issues in the petition for leave to appeal but phrased the issues somewhat differently in the appellant's brief. Reading both documents together, two questions emerge: (1) whether, as a matter of law, the public recital required by section 2(e) of the Open Meetings Act must include an explanation of the significance of the contemplated action and (2) whether, in this case, the Board violated section 2(e) by failing to satisfy the public recital requirement at the open meeting at which the Board voted to approve the agreement.

         ¶ 21 Interpretation of Section 2(e) of the Open Meetings Act

         ¶ 22 The first issue requires this court to interpret section 2(e) of the Open Meetings Act to determine what constitutes a sufficient public recital at an open meeting. The parties agree that, in general, the standard of review regarding interpretation of a statute is de novo (Goodman v. Ward, 241 Ill.2d 398, 406 (2011)), but the Attorney General nevertheless argues for a substantial degree of deference to her because of her statutory role in administering the Act. The Board argues that no deference is due to the Attorney General.

         ¶ 23 We conclude that the answer to this dispute depends on whether section 2(e) is ambiguous. This court would give some deference to the Attorney General's interpretation of an ambiguous statute, as she heads the agency charged with the administration and enforcement of the Act. See 5 ILCS 120/3.5 (West 2012); Crittenden v. Cook County Comm'n on Human Rights, 2013 IL 114876, ¶ 19. However, if the meaning of section 2(e) is plain, there is no need for statutory construction, and thus, no deference to the agency is due. See Hadley v. Illinois Department of Corrections, 224 Ill.2d 365, 371 (2007) (noting that a court is not bound by an agency interpretation that conflicts with the statute).

         ¶ 24 The principles guiding our analysis are well established. Our primary objective is to ascertain and give effect to legislative intent, the surest and most reliable indicator of which is the statutory language itself, given its plain and ordinary meaning. Illinois Graphics Co. v. Nickum, 159 Ill.2d 469, 479 (1994). Where the language of the statute is clear and unambiguous, its meaning is plain, and we must apply it ...


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