Legality of BOR release debated

By Jerry Lawrence

The Board of Regents might have violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act last week when it decided to release a controversial report in a closed meeting.

The Open Meetings Act requires meetings of public bodies be open to the public, except in a limited number of exceptions that include discussions of personnel matters, legal matters and land acquisition.

Last week, Regents Chancellor Roderick Groves referred all questions regarding the board’s executive session to Regents Legal Counsel Carol Fines.

Groves said Fines told the board the release of the report was covered by the Open Meetings Act’s provisions for what meetings can be closed.

Fines said all discussions of the report’s release were in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOI) request.

Under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, public bodies must respond to requests for public documents within seven working days. After a time extension and appeal process, a FOI request can be enforced by a judge in a court of law.

Fines said the FOI request was a legal matter that affected the Board of Regents and the universities it governs, and justified the closed discussions by saying they centered on a system-wide legal matter.

However, the Illinois attorney general’s office said such a scenario did not seem to be covered by the Open Meetings Act.

While the attorney general’s office is prohibited by law from giving legal opinions on specific cases, office Spokesman Jim Leach said office personnel can comment on hypothetical scenarios involving state law.

Leach said several lawyers in the attorney general’s office believed a hypothetical scenario, where a FOI request was discussed in a closed meeting as a legal matter, did not seem to be covered by the act.

“We don’t really find anything in the act as a basis to close the meeting to study a FOI request,” Leach said. He added the act’s definition of legal matters stressed pending or imminent litigation.

“A FOI request doesn’t represent pending, imminent or likely litigation,” Leach said.

When told of the attorney general office’s opinion, Fines said someone concerned with legal opinions can seek the advice of whomever they wish, but said she would not comment on the matter any further. She said to do so would be a violation of lawyer-client privilege.

Fines said the discussion of the FOI request constituted discussion of a legal proceeding.

Leach said alleged violations of the Open Meetings Act have to be reported to the state’s attorney’s office in the county where the violation supposedly occurred. The act states violations are punishable by a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.

A secretary in the McClean County state’s attorney’s office said the office had not received any complaint regarding the Regents executive session.

The Regents govern NIU, Illinois State University in Normal and Sangamon State University in Springfield.