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“Emergency” Meetings Under the Open Meetings Act

December 5th, 2017

P.A.C. Requests for Review 2017 PAC 48511-12, 48522, and 48543.

The Open Meetings Act requires at least 48 hours public notice of any meeting, “except a meeting held in the event of a bona fide emergency.”  The term “bona fide emergency” is not defined in the Act nor has any reported Illinois appellate court attempted to lend a definition.

In this case, it was alleged the Evanston City Council violated the notice requirements of the Act by holding an “emergency” meeting to discuss the Cook County minimum wage ordinance with less than 48 hours public notice.  The City claimed the meeting met the definition of an “emergency” because the minimum wage ordinance adopted by the County would become law in the City of Evanston unless it opted out prior to the effective date.  While the City Council had not yet addressed the minimum wage ordinance, two adjoining municipalities announced their intention to either opt out or consider opting out shortly before the ordinance went into effect.  As a result, Evanston called an emergency City Council meeting the day before the Cook County ordinance was to take effect.  No action was taken at the emergency City Council meeting.

The Public Access Counselor acknowledged the lack of a definition of “emergency” in both the Act and case law.  It adopted the dictionary definition of emergency as, “an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action.”  Prior PAC decisions focused on “unanticipated circumstances” as the lynchpin for whether a meeting was an emergency.  For example, a prior opinion found an account deficit that would have resulted in a public body failing to meet payroll was not an emergency under the Act because it was foreseeable.

Applying the “unanticipated circumstances” test to the emergency meeting on the Cook County minimum wage ordinance, in a non-binding opinion the PAC found it should have been foreseen by the City Council.  The County ordinance was passed in October 2016 with an effective date of July 1, 2017.  This gave the City Council nearly 8 months’ notice it should consider the matter.  As a result, the meeting of June 30, 2017, called by the Evanston City Council did not qualify as an “emergency” under the Act.