City colleges leave public in the dark about trustee meetings

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Education reporter
  • October 06, 2008 @ 8:50 AM

Once a month, the City Colleges of Chicago trustees hold a public meeting to  approve new hires, shift money from one account to another and okay thousands of dollars worth of contracts for computers, construction projects and supplies.

But try to find out what’s up for discussion before a given meeting and you’re likely to get nowhere.

Many public agencies, including the Chicago Board of Education and suburban community colleges, publish detailed packets of material on upcoming board meetings. However, the City Colleges board makes almost no information about its meetings available to the public in advance. 

Several students on break between classes at Harold Washington College in the Loop were surprised to learn they wouldn’t be able to find out about board actions – like buying classroom equipment or eliminating courses – until a decision had already been made.

“That’s our tuition money they’re throwing around,” says political science student Adam Alden.

Anne Jurack, who plans to study 3D animation, was also bothered.

“Even if they can override our votes, we should at least have a little bit of say so they know what the students think,” she says.

Their concern is shared by Ronald Collins, a constitutional law expert at the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C. He says public meetings agendas are supposed to let the public know what’s on the table so its voice can be part of how decisions are made.

“Insofar as an agenda doesn’t do that, it undermines the whole purpose of having an agenda,” Collins says. “It does seem inconsistent with the whole notion of open government.”

The city colleges board posts a bare bones, six-item agenda on its Web site for each meeting. It contains vague and unexplained categories like “Approval of board packet and amendment folder.”

The Daily News submitted a formal records request for the board packet in advance of the City College Board’s Oct. 2 meeting, but has not yet received any information. 

“You’re asking for information in advance,” says Elsa Tullos, the city colleges’ spokeswoman. “I’m telling you, we don’t do that."

Tullos says it has been a long-standing district policy not to disclose meeting details ahead of time. She was unable to say why the district didn’t provide more detailed agendas, saying only that topics slated for the agenda sometimes change at the last minute before a meeting.

“I don’t really know what allows us to have this procedure this way, but that’s the procedure,” Tullos said.

At Joliet Junior College, agendas for upcoming Board of Trustees meetings are typically at least three pages long, listing each item up for discussion. The public can request hard-copy packets ahead of time that give more detailed background information about each agenda item, says Joan Tierney, the college president’s executive assistant.

Elgin Community College makes it even easier: Anyone can view detailed Board agendas online, including links to more information on each agenda item. Those links go up before the Board’s monthly meetings. 

City Colleges Board Chairman James Tyree did not return a call seeking comment. 

CCC Board meetings are open to public. But taxpayers and students are in the dark about many aspects of what goes on at the meetings until the following day, when the district posts downloadable files describing each adopted item.

That’s too late for anyone concerned about an issue to attend a meeting and speak to the Board prior to a vote, constitutional law experts say.

While the state Open Meetings Act doesn’t say what must be included in meeting agendas, the spirit of the law is clear. The very first section of the law states that “public bodies exist to aid in the conduct of the people's business and that the people have a right to be informed as to the conduct of their business.”

Peter Sachs is a Chicago-based journalist. He covers higher education for the Daily News.