The Illinois Attorney General has concluded that the City Colleges of Chicago violated state law on holding open meetings when trustees voted on a tuition hike in December without notifying the public.
However, the district voted a second time on the tuition increase in February -- and provided proper notice to the public -- after the Attorney General began investigating a complaint made by the Daily News.
The February action effectively made the original complaint moot, and the Attorney General closed the case after encouraging City Colleges to sign up for training on the Open Meetings Act.
“It does not appear that the Board’s failure to fulfill the (Open Meetings) Act’s requirement was willful or intentional,” Assistant Attorney General Heather Kimmons wrote in a three-page letter sent to the Daily News, the City College's Board of Trustees and the community college district's attorney.
Illinois' Open Meetings Act requires that public bodies post agendas 48 hours before each meeting. And agendas have to list specific items that are being voted on. While boards can discuss new business not listed on an agenda, they aren't allowed to vote on those items until the next meeting, after they've been properly listed on the agenda.
The Daily News' complaint in December also noted that trustee agendas, as published on the district’s Web site, were always identical except for date changes. The district replied to Kimmons that a separate “table of contents” accompanying each agenda provided more details. Up until recently, the Daily News was only able to obtain the table of contents by filing formal Freedom of Information Act requests.
Kimmons’ letter recommended that the district stop calling the list of items to be covered during each meeting a “table of contents” and instead refer to the list as an agenda.
That single document is now posted in its entirety on the district’s Web site two days before each meeting. And the district has a new review process to prevent future oversights, Kimmons’ letter said.
District officials could not be reached for comment Thursday because the district’s offices were closed for spring break.
“Because the board reversed itself and did act properly, effectively did a do-over of the meeting and of that vote, then under the current statute, that’s all that a citizen could ask,” said Sarah Klaper, a law instructor at DePaul University.
Klaper said the attorney general's office doesn’t have the power to punish public bodies that violate laws such as the Open Meetings Act. The most it can do is issue letters such as the one sent to City Colleges, which ends by encouraging the district to sign up for training on the Open Meetings Act.
“The Open Meetings Act needs to be stronger in providing remedies for citizens and for the state to take action against public bodies,” Klaper said.
Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18, or peter [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.