Mundelein High School District 120 board members broke the state's Open Meetings Act by gathering in downstate Macomb in September, the attorney general's office has found.
District officials told the public about the session -- organized to examine the artificial turf field at Western Illinois University -- and offered transportation. But hosting a board meeting four hours and 250 miles away from the district doesn't meet the legal requirement for convenience, the newly released, five-page opinion said.
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"Clearly, the time and distance involved in attending this meeting would have deterred all but the most stalwart of the public from attending," Assistant Attorney General Matthew C. Rogina, a member of the office's public access bureau, wrote in his opinion.
With the meeting long over, there's nothing the attorney general's office can do to rectify the situation, Rogina wrote. Still, he strongly cautioned the board to ensure all future meetings are convenient and open to the public.
Board members did not intend to violate the law by meeting in Macomb, District 120 Superintendent Jody Ware said in a prepared statement Wednesday. Officials wanted to evaluate turf fields in Macomb and other towns ahead of their own field project, she said.
"By visiting five different sites with five different turf products, the committee was able to select the best quality and most cost-effective turf product for the Mundelein High School stadium," Ware said in the emailed statement.
The attorney general's investigation was prompted by an inquiry from the Daily Herald.
The Open Meetings Act requires government agencies to do their business in public. It includes rules for gatherings of public officials, the use of email and other means of electronic communication, taping of meetings and how the public should be notified of upcoming meetings.
Public meetings are defined as any gathering of a majority of a quorum of an elected board. For the District 120 school board, that's three of its seven members.
The law also says public meetings "must be held at times and places convenient and open to the public."
Violations of the Open Meetings Act are misdemeanors punishable by fines and jail time, but criminal prosecutions are rare.
Three board members -- Rob Paliani, Joanne Anderson and Vicky Kennedy -- traveled with administrators and other people to Macomb on Sept. 10 to see the artificial turf field at Western Illinois University. Trustees were considering purchasing such a field -- and eventually did -- and officials wanted to see various types.
On other days, board members checked out fields at schools in Gurnee, Wheeling, Downers Grove and Darien. WIU's Hanson Field was the furthest destination.
No members of the public traveled to Macomb for the meeting, according to the official record of the session. Had any residents wanted to attend the meeting, which began in Mundelein at 6:30 a.m. that day, seats in a car would have been available.
A few days before the meeting, a representative of the Lake County state's attorney's office's civil division, which often handles Open Meetings Act issues, said he saw no legal problem with the out-of-town gathering.
"You can't bring the Macomb artificial turf to Mundelein," Assistant State's Attorney Dan Jasica told the Daily Herald.
But in an opinion issued Tuesday, the attorney general's office disagreed.
Rogina acknowledged the meeting was properly advertised and open to the public, but he took issue with its location.
"Requiring a citizen to embark on a 12-hour, 500-mile trip on a Saturday in order to attend a meeting cannot be characterized as 'convenient,'" Rogina wrote.
District officials could have taken other steps to examine the turf at WIU, he said. For example, the task could have been delegated to administrators, who aren't bound by the Open Meetings Act.
"Or, if the board believed that it was necessary to have its members physically view the turf, it could have delegated the task to only one or two members," Rogina wrote.
If out-of-district trips are required in the future, a smaller committee will handle the task, Ware said.
The attorney general's office wasn't entirely negative about the situation. The office commended the board for providing public notice of the trip and for offering transportation if any residents wanted to attend.
None of three trustees who went to Macomb could be reached for comment.