Two U-46 board members squabble over comments made in closed meeting

Updated 7/20/2016 12:05 PM
  • Jeanette Ward

    Jeanette Ward

  • Traci Ellis

    Traci Ellis

Two Elgin Area School District U-46 board members publicly squabbled Monday night about the discussion two years ago during a closed meeting whose recording was released by the board last month.

School board member Jeanette Ward earlier had been denied access to review the recording of a Jan. 25, 2014, meeting, which she sought since getting elected in May 2015 and still maintains violated the state's Open Meetings Act.

She and fellow board members got together recently to listen to that recording. At that meeting, the board conducted a self evaluation with the help of an Illinois Association of School Boards official, and an evaluation of then-Superintendent Jose Torres, who resigned in August 2014 to head the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora.

On Monday, Ward said her purpose for trying to gain access to previous closed session recordings simply was an exercise in achieving openness.

"Seeking access to closed-session recordings was never about 'gotchas' or a 'witch hunt,' " she stressed. "It has always been about transparency."

Ward said she sought access to the meeting because former board member Frank Napolitano claimed Open Meetings Act violations had occurred.

"Let me state clearly, I do feel that the meeting potentially violated the OMA," Ward said. "At the very least inappropriate discussions took place -- in the sense that some discussions did not focus on board self evaluation but on maligning a certain member of the community by name who was not there to defend himself, accusing him of being a part of a group that is the '21st century brand of the KKK.' For any board member to slander a citizen of the district simply because a board member disagrees with that citizen is not only inappropriate for closed board meetings, but it is a lack of character on the part of the entire board to remain silent, speak out in agreement, or simply do nothing."

She added, even if an open meetings violation is found, it likely would "elicit only a slap on the wrist."

Ward ultimately called for eliminating closed meetings for the purpose of school board self evaluations.

School board member Traci O'Neal Ellis objected to Ward's characterization of the discussion that took place at that closed meeting, calling Ward's "veiled" comments Monday a threat.

Ellis said Ward only sought access to that particular meeting's recording because the accusation was made against her by Napolitano and the Edgar County Watchdogs group.

"This was a witch hunt and it was all about coming after Traci O'Neal Ellis," said Ellis, adding that her character had been maligned. "You've got all sorts of legal recourse. If you think I did something wrong, come after me."

Ward responded that she never attacked or accused Ellis of anything.

Stemming from the U-46 spat, a measure giving local elected officials access to records about closed sessions that happened before their tenures was approved by the Illinois House and Senate in the final days of the spring session with no opposition and signed into law by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

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