Haji-Sheikh wins board lawsuit; trustees violated Open Meeting Act

By Michael Urbanec

SYCAMORE — DeKalb County Judge Bradley Waller ruled during a summary judgment Wednesday in favor of Misty Haji-Sheikh, graduate student at large, finding the Board of Trustees in violation of the Illinois Open Meeting Act and voiding the unpaid portion of former President Doug Baker’s severance package.

Baker, who resigned June 15 after a state watchdog agency ruled he mismanaged the university, was awarded a $617,500 severance package. The presidential transition agreement was agreed upon by the Board during a closed meeting June 15, which Waller ruled a violation of the Open Meetings Act because the Board did not properly disclose an agenda.

Baker has already received $587,500 of the severance package, according to an Aug. 4 Chicago Tribune article. The $30,000 remaining was to cover his legal fees from his tenure with the school.

Haji-Sheikh, who is a member of the DeKalb County Board, filed the lawsuit June 27 to place an injunction on Baker’s severance pay because of the NIU Board of Trustee’s violation of the Illinois Open Meetings act.

The Board filed for a summary judgment Sept. 8, and Haji-Sheikh filed for a summary judgment Sept. 15, meaning both sides felt they had a strong enough argument to avoid the hearing process and could instead present summaries of their arguments to the judge.

The Illinois Open Meetings Act was created to protect the transparency between government entities and the public. Any meeting of a state-funded entity must have a detailed agenda of what will be discussed created and posted to their website within 48 hours of the meeting, according to section 102/2.02 of the act.

“It is the intent of the act itself to protect the citizen’s right to know,” said Waller during the summary judgment. “What is the plain, ordinary meaning of presidential employment, review and approval?”

The violation occurred when the terms of the presidential transition agreement were agreed upon by the Board during a closed session, when the agenda read “presidential employment, review, and approval.” This language was considered misleading to the public based on the content of the discussions in the closed session.

“My whole goal was to get NIU to comply with the law,” Haji-Sheikh said. “Being a lawmaker myself, I believe that everyone should follow the law.”

When Waller ruled in favor of Haji-Sheikh, he acknowledged the public’s lack of knowledge on the inner workings of a closed session.

“No ordinary citizen could possibly have had any reasonable expectation that he or she knew that the agenda item discussion was focused on anything more than a review and approval of the president,” Waller said.

The Board’s legal team argued their inclusion of “presidential employment, review and approval” contained broad enough language to allow them to discuss the resignation agreement, and because the Board approved the agreement in an open session, they did not violate the law.

“All they had to do was retake the vote,” Haji-Sheikh said. “This never would have gone to court.”

Reimbursement for Haji-Sheikh’s legal fees will be discussed during a status hearing 9 a.m. Dec. 8 at the DeKalb County Courthouse, 110 E. Sycamore Street.