Note: This page covers information specific to Illinois. For general information concerning access to government meetings see the Access to Government Meetings section of this guide.
The Illinois Open Meetings Act provides the public with a right of access to the meetings of a large number of government bodies at the state and local level. The law also entitles you to notice of these meetings and gives you the ability to inspect meeting minutes. For more detailed information about Illinois open meetings law, please consult the Illinois Attorney General's Guide to the Illinois Open Meetings Act and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's Open Government Guide: Illinois.
What Meetings are Covered?
What Government Bodies Are Covered?
The Illinois Open Meetings Act covers all "public bodies." The term "public body" includes
all legislative, executive, administrative or advisory bodies of the State, counties, townships, cities, villages, incorporated towns, school districts and all other municipal corporations, boards, bureaus, committees or commissions of this State, and any subsidiary bodies of any of the foregoing including but not limited to committees and subcommittees which are supported in whole or in part by tax revenue, or which expend tax revenue, except the General Assembly and committees or commissions thereof.
5 Ill. Comp. Stat. 120/1.02. This definition is broad, bringing in nearly all publicly-created state and local decison-making bodies. "Public body" applies to state agencies in the executive branch of state government, political subdivisions (including all their constituent boards and commissions), and municipal authorities (such as city councils). The term applies to school boards and the boards of public colleges and universities. In addition, it applies to committees and subcommittees created by "public bodies" that are supported by or expend tax revenue, or that are authorized to act for the public body or give it advice or recommendations.
The Illinois Open Meetings Act does not apply to the Illinois Senate or House of Representatives or to legislative committees or commissions. However, the Illinois Constitution requires that sessions of each house of the General Assembly and meetings of committees, joint committees, and legislative commissions be open to the public unless members vote to close by a two-thirds majority. The Illinois Open Meetings Act does not apply to the federal government bodies.
What is a Meeting?
In addition to determining what government bodies are covered by the open meetings law, you'll need to figure out which of their gatherings or activities constitute a "meeting" for purposes of the law (and therefore must be open to the public). Under the Illinois Open Meetings Law, a "meeting" is
any gathering, whether in person or by video or audio conference, telephone call, electronic means (such as, without limitation, electronic mail, electronic chat, and instant messaging), or other means of contemporaneous interactive communication, of a majority of a quorum of the members of a public body held for the purpose of discussing public business or, for a 5‑member public body, a quorum of the members of a public body held for the purpose of discussing public business.
5 Ill. Comp. Stat. 120/1.02. There are three key elements to the definition of meeting: (1) a gathering; (2) a majority of a quorum; and (3) a purpose to discuss public business.
First, a "gathering" can be conducted in-person, through a telephone conference call or video conference, or through electronic means, including email, chat, and instant messaging. Illinois is one of the first states to explicitly define a meeting to include electronic communications like email and chat. Despite this new definition, the most practical use of the Open Meetings Act for you will probably still be attending ordinary, in-person meetings.
Second, a "majority of a quorum" must be present to have a "meeting." This sounds complicated, but a "quorum" just means the number of members of a body or committee required to take formal action, which is always a majority of the entire membership of that body or committee. So, for a nine-member body, a quorum is five members, and a majority of those five members is three members. Therefore, a nine-member body can have a "meeting" when three or more members are present. For an eleven-member body, a quorum is six members, and a majority of a quorum is 4 members. Thus, an eleven-member body can have a "meeting" when 4 or more members are present. You can do the analysis for any size public body. There is one exception to this rule: for a five-member body, the full quorum of three or more members is required for a "meeting."
Third, a gathering must be held "the purpose of discussing public business" in order to be a "meeting." The "purpose" requirement means that social and ceremonial gatherings held for purposes unrelated to conducting public business generally are not covered by the Open Meetings Act. However, a social gathering may become a "meeting" if the requisite number of members start to discuss public business in a meaningful away. According to the Attorney General, the phrase "discussing public business" refers to "an exchange of views and ideas among public body members, on any item germane to the affairs of their public body." "It is not directed at casual remarks, but . . . at discussions that are deliberative in nature."
What Are Your Rights?
The Illinois Open Meetings Act give "the public" the right to attend the meetings of public bodies or their committees, with exceptions for closed meetings discussed below. Illinois law does not limit access to meetings to a specific category of people or a profession, such as "the traditional press." Anyone may attend.
The Open Meetings Act does not create a right to comment or participate in public meetings. As a matter of practice, however, many public bodies allow for public comment, but require that an "intent to comment" form be filed with the secretary of the body.
The right to attend meetings is not necessarily meaningful without proper notice of those meetings. To address this issue, Illinois law requires public bodies and their committees to give notice to the public of its meetings. At the beginning of each calendar or fiscal year, each body must give the public notice of the schedule of regular meetings for the year, including the dates, times, and places of the meetings. A public body must also post an agenda for each regular meeting at its principal office and at the location where the meeting is to be held at least forty-eight hours in advance. A public body with a regularly maintained website must also post the agenda of regular meetings on the site.
A public body may also hold "special meetings," which are meetings not on the regular schedule. In that event, the public body must post notice at least forty-eight hours in advance. This notice must include the agenda for the special meeting. If an emergency meeting is called for, a public body must give notice "as soon as practicable, but in any event prior to the holding of such meeting," to any news medium which has filed an annual request for notice. It is unclear whether a non-traditional journalist or other online publisher would qualify as a "news medium," but you may want to request notice in any event.
Minutes and Recordings
All public bodies and their committees must keep written minutes of open meetings and make them available to the public for inspection. If a public body has a website, it must post the minutes on the website as well. In addition, public bodies and their committees are required to keep a verbatim record of all their closed meetings in the form of an audio or video recording, but they generally do not have to make these available to the public.
For information on your ability to use recording devices at public meetings, see Illinois Recording Law.
An Exception: Closed Meetings or Sessions
The general rule is that all meetings of public bodies and their committees must be open to the public, but a public body may hold a closed meeting or session if it identifies a specific statutory exemption. Under the Illinois Open Meetings Act, a public body may hold a closed meeting or session when it addresses one of twenty-four subject-area exemptions found in 5 Ill. Comp. Stat. 120/2(c), or when another state statute specifically authorizes closure. If a public body is dealing with one of these exemptions, it may hold a closed meeting or session. In order to do so, however, it must also meet the following procedural requirements:
- a majority of members must vote during an open meeting to close a meeting or portion of a meeting, and the vote of each member must be recorded in the minutes;
- the public body must record in the minutes of an open meeting the specific statutory exception upon which it is relying to close the meeting; and
- the public body must also make a verbatim recording of all closed meetings, but these recordings are not usually open to the public for inspection.
What Are Your Remedies If You Are Denied Access?
If you know in advance that a meeting will be closed, and you believe that closure would violate the Illinois Open Meetings Act, you should make a written demand for access on the presiding officer of the public body or its attorney. The demand should remind the public body of its obligations under the Open Meetings Act and ask it to identify the statutory exception it is relying on to close the meeting. If the public body refuses your demand for access, you can sue in Illinois state court. If you are successful, a court may order the public body to make the meeting in question open to the public.
You may also sue to have a court invalidate past actions of public bodies taken in violation of the Open Meetings Act or order disclosure of the verbatim record of an improperly closed meeting. To bring a lawsuit challenging past action of a public body, however, you must file a lawsuit within sixty days of the agency action in question (or within sixty days of discovery that a violation took place). If you decide to sue, there may be public interest organizations that would be willing to take on your case for free or for a reduced rate. Please see the Finding Legal Help section for details on finding legal representation. If you win in a lawsuit against a public body for violation of the Open Meetings Act, a court may force the losing party to pay your attorneys' fees. On the other hand, if you lose, a court may force you to pay the attorneys' fees of the public body if it finds that your lawsuit was "frivolous or malicious" in nature. This would not happen unless your legal claim were utterly and obviously without any merit.
The state may also pursue criminal penalties against members of a public body who violate the Open Meetings Act.
If you show up at a meeting and the public body tries to exclude you from it, you do not have time to get a court order. You should remind the presiding officer (or whoever is denying you access) that the Illinois Open Meetings Act (5 Ill. Comp. Stat. 120/2) requires that the meetings of state and local public bodies and their committees be open to the public unless there is a specific statutory exemption. You should insist on your right to attend unless the presiding officer can identify for you the statutory authority for closing the meeting. If the governing body still insists on excluding you, you have no choice but to leave in an orderly fashion. You may then consider filing a lawsuit.