Minutes of the past 22 public meetings of the Triton College Board of Trustees suggest members have routinely violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act by failing to give proper notice for closed-door confabs. In addition, the board has not recorded any roll call votes before entering non-public sessions, as required by law.
“A public body can’t have a closed meeting without first having a public meeting,” Assistant Illinois Attorney General and Assistant Public Access Counselor Scott Sievers said. “The vote to go into closed session has to be conducted in open session.”
Public bodies, such as the Triton board, must publicly notice a meeting 48 hours in advance, according to state law. To enter into a closed session, the body must first meet in open session before closing the meeting for one of two dozen “strictly construed” reasons.
For the past 15 years, Winifred Podgorski has observed the Triton board proceedings for the Oak Park River Forest League of Women Voters. Podgorski said the Triton board has held closed meetings prior to the publicly noticed meetings during that time.
“They always start out with a closed meeting,” Podgorski said. “They’ve never had an open meeting that wasn’t preceded by a closed meeting.”
Minutes of the last 22 meetings reveal the board routinely fails to start public meetings on time because it is meeting in closed session. This practice is allowed under state law, however, the board does not appear to follow the law when entering into the sessions.
To close a meeting, the board must publicly state one of the 24 reasons allowed by law for doing so. Then, a role call vote is taken during which each board member votes on whether they want to shield the discussion from public scrutiny. That vote to go into closed session, along with each board member’s vote on the issue, must be published in the minutes of the open meeting.
“If the minutes don’t show that there was a role call vote [on the closed session], then I think it’s questionable if they complied,” Sievers said.
Of the past 22 meetings called by the Triton board, 13 have started at least 30 minutes late. On three other occasions the board publicly convened at least 15 minutes late. On six occasions, the meeting started more than an hour late-in one case, an hour and 45 minutes after the time indicated on the published agenda.
Triton board Vice Chairwoman Donna Peluso took responsibility for the late start of the August meeting, which convened 20 minutes behind schedule.
“It was my fault,” Peluso said. “I failed to mention at the board meeting that we had a human resources, a personnel issue.”
The personnel discussion took place in executive session, Peluso said. She was unsure whether noticed meeting agendas include an allotted period for closed-door sessions, and referred further questions to the board’s attorney.
“We have attorneys,” Peluso said. “Anything you have regarding those issues you’d need to talk with them.”
None of the agendas for the last 22 meetings listed a closed session, and none of the minutes of the proceedings subsequently published show any indication that the Triton board announced a closed session, stated its purpose, or held a roll call vote on the issue.
A sister paper of the Forest Park Review, the Wednesday Journal, filed a complaint with the Illinois Attorney General’s office earlier this month, alleging the Triton board violated the open meeting statute on five occasions over the past year. On Aug. 16, Sievers mailed a letter to Chairman Mark Stephens, notifying him of the complaint, and advising him of the law.
The letter requested that Stephens “review the practices of the Triton board to ensure compliance with the Open Meetings Act,” and offered assistance with any questions the board may have concerning compliance.
“If they disagree, we’d love to get their responses and see what happened,” Sievers said.