Board resumed open session with doors locked, took actions not listed on agenda
URBANA — A spokesman for the Illinois attorney general's office and an attorney for the Illinois Press Association say the Urbana Free Library board apparently violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act twice in the same meeting this week.
"According to the Open Meetings Act, what they did appears to be in direct violation of the law," Scott Mulford, a spokesman for the Illinois attorney general's office, said on Friday.
The apparent violations took place when the board reconvened following a closed session on Wednesday night.
News-Gazette reporter Patrick Wade said the building was closed during the closed session and was not reopened when the meeting reconvened. With the building locked, the general public could not attend the reconvened open meeting.
Mulford said holding the open part of the meeting in a locked building would constitute a violation of the part of the law that states, "All meetings of public bodies shall be open to the public."
Esther Seitz, an attorney with the Illinois Press Association, said the library board violated the Open Meetings Act by making part of the open portion of the meeting inaccessible for the public.
"The fact that the meeting room was locked and physically inaccessible and impossible for the public to enter the open portion of the public body's meeting essentially closes it, and that also constitutes an Open Meetings Act violation," she said.
Seitz cited the case of Gerwin v. Livingston County Board, in which a county board held a meeting in a room that allowed space for only 13 members of the general public to attend when more than 150 people were attempting to attend. The court ultimately nullified actions taken at that meeting.
"This situation is worse than that," Seitz said.
Library board Vice President Chris Scherer said the building was locked at 9 p.m. and that the board did not reconvene in open session until just before midnight, but it remained locked.
"There was nobody there by that time," Scherer said.
Mulford said the Urbana Library Board also apparently violated the Open Meetings Act by taking action during the reconvened open session that was not listed on the agenda.
Library board President Mary Ellen Farrell sent out the following in an email after the meeting:
"After the closed session we moved into Open Session and approved the following:
"A public statement will be issued:
"We are encouraged that people are involved and share our love and concern for Urbana Free Library. We've heard you, and the Board is in the process of addressing the issues you have raised over the last week. To protect the privacy of individuals, please respect our process and understand that we are taking steps. As we make progress we will keep you informed.
"The Board directs that all weeding activities and shipping of materials off library premises cease immediately.
"Urbana Free Library will reopen the strategic planning process, complete a draft strategic plan, and make that plan available to the community for a reasonable period of time for their review and comment.
"The Board directs the Executive Director to explore the feasibility of televising future Board meetings. Results of this feasibility study will be reported at the next regular Board meeting in July."
Mulford said the actions described in the email are an apparent violation of the Open Meetings Act because the actions taken were not listed on the agenda.
Mulford said the act requires that all final action "must be preceded by a public recital of the nature of the matter being considered and any other information that will inform the public of the business being considered."
"The fact that the agenda did not specifically provide for an item on which the board ended up taking action would be a violation of the Open Meetings Act," Seitz said.
Seitz noted the case of Rice v. Board of Trustees of Adams County, in which the court declared null and void an action taken by the Adams County Board that wasn't specifically listed in the agenda.
"The same thing could happen here if somebody files suit based on the violation," Seitz said.
Scherer referred questions about the actions taken when the meeting reconvened to Urbana City Attorney James Simon. The News-Gazette was unable to reach Simon on Friday night.
Urbana resident Tom Moone, who had attended the meeting until the board voted to go into closed session, said he did not know the board took additional action in open session after that.
"I would have liked to have that part of the meeting open for people to attend it," Moone said on Friday. "I don't think it is an open session if the building is locked. If the building is closed, how can the meeting be open?"