GENEVA – Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office issued a binding opinion that Geneva School District 304 violated the requirements of the Open Meetings Act when the school board took final action on a matter without sufficiently informing the public of the nature of the action.
The Public Access counselor issued the opinion Tuesday.
It stems from a June 24 meeting in which an employee identified only as “Employee A” was recommended for termination after a 90-minute closed session.
The attorney general agreed with the complaint filed by the Kane County Chronicle, asserting the district must name the person whose employment is recommended for termination in a public meeting.
The district withheld the employee’s name in favor of her privacy rights, officials said.
“We felt that the privacy interest of individual employee outweighed the public’s right to know in this instance,” school district attorney Rick Petesch said. “But the attorney general disagreed. It’s simple as that.”
The attorney general directed the board to take “immediate and appropriate action to comply with the opinion by reconsidering its June 24 final action” with a recital of the action being taken, including naming the employee to be recommended for termination.
That means, Terrie Harrington, a kindergarten instructional assistant at Heartland Elementary School, will have to be recommended for termination again, this time with the board naming her in open session, according to the attorney general’s decision.
“In these cases, it is the district’s belief that the individual’s right to some level of privacy outweighs the public’s right to know,” according to a statement released by the district spokeswoman Kelley Munch.
“This is an Open Meetings Act issue that was subject to interpretation,” Munch said. “The attorney general noted that the district’s view is understandable, but identified case law that supports the opinion that the employee’s name must be used. We will certainly comply with the opinion of the attorney general.”
The district could appeal the binding opinion in circuit court, but Petesch said it would not take further action to dispute it.
The Chronicle had challenged the district’s explanation in its complaint to the attorney general, stating the district did not have the right to withhold names of public employees recommended for termination when taking action at a public meeting.
The attorney general’s analysis agreed, stating, “Because the employee whose termination was recommended was identified only as ‘Employee A’ the public was deprived of any meaningful information concerning the practical effect of the board’s decision.”
The attorney general’s office also found that although the public would know the general nature of the issue being voted on, “the public could not determine whether the board was dismissing a support staff, a teacher, a principal or the superintendent of the district.
“By declining to identify the subject of the dismissal by name, the board did not fully comply with the requirements of … the Open Meetings Act that it ‘inform the public of the business being conducted,’ ” according to the binding opinion.
While the attorney general’s decision found the district’s reason to conceal the employee’s identity “ ‘to save embarrassment,’ the legislature has clearly opted for the overriding policy of accountability. It is not our prerogative, or the board’s, to reject the importance of that public interest, or to exempt school boards from the express application of the act.”