When it comes to keeping the public's business in the light, leaders at John A. Logan College could use some enlightening themselves.
All eyes are on the college board of trustees as it deliberates how to respond to an opinion from the Illinois Attorney General's public access counselor, which ruled that the board defied the Open Meetings Act in 2016 by using a lengthy closed session to discuss issues that should have been examined in public.
The board's best move is to be as transparent as possible in resolving this issue -- and then make sure all trustees understand their obligations under the Open Meetings Act.
The 2016 meeting took place amid the state's budget impasse, as college leaders considered the layoffs of 55 employees. Only one of the trustees, Brandi Husch -- the student trustee who just days earlier had admonished administrators for making students and faculty "suffer" for their own poor decisions -- voted against the plan.
Prior to that vote, however, trustees held a closed session during which trustee Bill Kilquist dangled in front of Husch evidence of a past legal trouble, all in an effort to "shame her into silence," Husch said. Husch brought up the episode at the board's next open meeting, only to be castigated by then-chairman Don Brewer for disclosing what had been discussed during a closed session. Husch filed her request for the public access counselor to review the meeting just days afterward.
More than three years later, the verdict is in: The college violated the Open Meetings Act. The AG's office found that instead of going into closed session to discuss individual personnel -- which is permitted under the OMA -- the board held a broader conversation about the proposed layoffs. During more than 70 minutes of closed session, trustees used only about eight of them to discuss their stated business, the ruling found. The rest could have, and should have, been debated in public.
If Husch's account is true, it's galling that Kilquist, a former longtime sheriff, would weaponize a young person's legal history in order to silence reasonable dissent. Just as concerning, though, is that Kilquist, now chairman of the board, appears to have an incomplete grasp of the Open Meetings Act.
In its opinion, the public access counselor asks the board to release the full recording of the closed session -- a recording the college already has destroyed as part of routine disposal of closed meeting records. Destroying a record while it was the subject of inquiry may not have been wise, but it was not illegal.
Trustees, however, need to make it clear they understand their mistake. If the AG's office can legally release its copy of the recording back to JALC, the board should get it, and make it public. If not, they should release the written minutes of the meeting.
As for Kilquist and the board -- which, in fairness, only retains a few members from that divisive period -- a little education is in order. The sentiment behind the Open Meetings Act leans toward openness -- in other words, it mandates that everything a public body does should be done in the public view, except for some very narrowly defined places where privacy is considered necessary.
The OMA exists to keep governmental bodies accountable to the people they serve, accountability that vanishes when business is conducted under cover of darkness.
After three years of controversy, it's time for John A. Logan College to formally acknowledge this point, and let the light come shining back in.