State's attorney reprimands school board : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
|State's attorney reprimands school board |
|Cited for multiple violations of Open Meetings Act |
|by Lyle R. Rolfe|
Oswego School District Board members learned Monday night they have been reprimanded by Kendall County State's Attorney Eric Weis for multiple violations of the Illinois Open Meetings Act (OMA) during five board meetings in April.
Attorney Karl Ottosen, whose law firm was hired by the board in April as the third firm to represent the district, told members on May 4, Board President Bill Walsh contacted Weis about a violation of the OMA by the board.
As state's attorney, Weis is responsible for investigating suspected violations of the OMA by public bodies in the county.
Walsh told Weis the board had failed to record five closed session meetings in April. The OMA requires that such meetings be recorded.
Ottosen said he, Walsh, Weis, and his assistant, Leslie Johnson, subsequently completed an investigation of the violations.
Ottosen said Weis has provided the board with an action plan in an effort to prevent any future violations of the OMA by the board.
He confirmed there were five meetings where the board violated the act. Four meetings dealt with interviews of prospective candidates for administrative positions in the district. Only the board members and a candidate were present at each meeting to keep information confidential, he added.
Ottosen said the first meeting was held outside the normal meeting place and it was an oversight that the board did not have the regular recording device at the meeting. This meeting was held in a second floor room of a downtown Oswego restaurant-pub. The regular meeting place is the second floor multipurpose room at Oswego East High School, 1525 Harvey Road, Oswego, where recording equipment is available.
Ottosen said the next four board meetings were held at OEHS.
"The recorder was there and was working as far as the board knew, but there was no media 'S card' or whatever the recorder uses to record the meeting digitally. It (the card) was not in the recorder itself," he said.
Referring to the recorder, Ottosen said, "It looked like it was working and the board thought they were recording the meeting.
"That (no card), was discovered and at the next meeting the card was inserted and they turned it on and there was a light flashing. But unbeknownst to the board that light flashing just meant that voice recognition was taking place. That same button needed to be pushed again for it to actually record."
He said there were two sound bites on the recorder, but when the button was pressed a second time rather than pause the recorder, it turned the machine on allowing it to record the breaks during the meeting.
"So you had three more nights of operational error-nothing intentional on your part. There was no action taking place other than one meeting where you offered a contract to Dr. (Paul) O'Malley in open session. The closed session was a discussion on the terms of the contract," Ottosen said.
However, the board refused to give O'Malley's name to the public because he had not yet notified his employer he was taking another job. O'Malley's name was released at the following regular meeting.
Ottosen said written minutes of those meetings were approved at later regular board meetings and the board has agreed to take other steps to avoid future violations.
"The steps outlined by the board to the state's attorney on May 4 along with the self-reporting was that you would make sure that you had somebody present from the staff who knew how to operate the equipment, made sure it started properly and that he would be trained on how to operate the recorder. And if that staff member were not present you would have at least one backup recorder for closed session minutes," Ottosen said.
He said this action by the board tells the state's attorney that the board is taking this seriously.
Ottosen said they told the state's attorney that every board has or is taking the Attorney General's required on-line training course on the OMA.
He said Walsh told the state's attorney on May 4 when he reported the violations, that these are the steps the board is taking to avoid future violations.
Ottosen said they met with the state's attorney on July 19 and learned of a few past violations.
"And apparently there has been kind of a track record of the board acting on items not specifically listed on the agenda. When a member of the audience would report this violation to the state's attorney's office to contact the district, they would put it on the agenda for the next meeting, act on it again and cure the violation.
"According to the state's attorney because this violation was repeated, they thought the board was not taking this very seriously. They want it to be taken serious as we go forward so Mr. Walsh and I assured Mr. Weis that this board does care about the Open Meeting Act," Ottosen said.
But Weis said the number of times this happened indicates the board has not been serious about this, so he came up with a plan he wants the board to agree to and then close out the current violation investigation.
Ottosen outlined a memo that was sent to the board by Weis in July and commented on several items on the memo saying some are done or underway, but neither he nor Walsh would release a copy of the memo to the news media.
One recommendation was to have someone at every meeting who is trained to operate the recording system or to have a backup recorder if a trained person is not available.
State's attorney wants
board to read meetings act
Weis also wants every board member to read the OMA and then sign a paper saying they read and understand it.
Also, one of the district's law firms must give a one-hour training session to the board on the OMA using materials approved by the state's attorney, Ottosen said.
"Lastly he wanted you to have an attorney present at all of your meetings who is knowledgeable of the Open Meetings Act for open and closed sessions for at least a one-year period," Ottosen said.
He noted however, that Weis does not have the authority to demand this, but only to recommend.
"Since you retained our firm we also recommend for at least a six month period, you have us present at meetings. If our firm is to do that, Mr. Walsh asked if we would provide some kind of retainer or fixed dollar amount for those meetings," he said and suggested they start on Aug. 1.
He suggested they go for three months to see how many meetings are held and how long each one is and base a retainer fee on this.
Ottosen said he and Walsh also suggested that the new Superintendent, Dr. Matthew Wendt, who comes from Iowa, also read the OMA and be tested on it. He said Weis concurred with the idea.
Ottosen noted that Weis told him he was impressed by Walsh because he self-reported his violations, something he said is not normally done.
During its first two months of representing the district-April and May--Ottosen's firm was paid $9,600 at the rate of $200 per hour, according to figures obtained from the school district by the Ledger-Sentinel.