Confidentiality concerns rise in Woodland Dist. 50
Two school board members in Gurnee have raised concerns about closed-door discussions on sensitive issues becoming public when an elected official legally participates over the telephone.
Woodland Elementary District 50 board members Vincent Juarez and Terry Hall last week suggested disconnecting phone participation in closed sessions.
Juarez said he wants the Woodland board policy changed to protect privileged conversations.
"Nobody should be able to call in to closed session to listen to what's going on in closed session outside of that room, because we don't know who's on the other end of the phone," Juarez said. "It's not that I don't trust my individual board members, because I do trust each and every one of you."
State law allows school boards and other governments to go behind closed doors at public meetings to discuss topics including personnel, litigation and land acquisition.
Formal votes on those issues must be in public session, according to the Illinois Open Meetings Act.
Board member Carla Little, who periodically participates in the private meetings on the phone when out of town for her job, defended the practice and noted it's legal.
Not allowing a board member to participate over the phone or through other electronic means won't guarantee confidentiality, she said.
She also objected to board members reviewing unedited audio recordings of closed meetings if they can't attend in person.
"(The recordings are) more for us to see if there were violations of the Open Meetings Act, not to have other board members go back and listen when they're not available," Little said.
"I just think we need more education to understand what it means to be a board member. We're just not there as a board yet."
Woodland board President Mark Vondracek said he doesn't see a need to end remote meeting participation.
"I do trust everyone," he said.
Under the Open Meetings Act, meeting participation by means other than a physical presence is allowed under certain circumstances -- such as employment, illness or emergency -- provided the public body has adopted rules allowing it.
If the government has proper rules allowing attendance by phone, there is no provision that differentiates between open and closed session.
The school board could add rules prohibiting members from allowing a third party to listen to a phone discussion, according to the Illinois attorney general's office.
In a review of the Open Meetings Act for its members, the Illinois Association of School Boards conceded nothing can be done if someone wants to publicly dish what was said in a closed session.
"One of the continuing problems of closed meetings is how to control disclosure of confidential information by individual board members," according to the school board association.
"There is nothing in the law giving a school board the power to censure or otherwise levy sanctions on one of its members for any reason."
James Russell, a spokesman for the Springfield-based school board association, said the organization doesn't have a directive for members regarding phone attendance.
"It is our job to explain what the law says, to help them develop policies that allow them to comply and train or offer examples of best practices," Russell said.