Judge Dismisses Former Board Member's Lawsuit Against District 113A
Janet Hughes filed a lawsuit in April claiming she was denied access to financial statements and recordings of closed meetings during her two-year term in office.
A Cook County judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by former Lemont-Bromberek Combined School District 113A Board Member Janet Hughes claiming she was denied access to financial statements and recordings of closed meetings from her two-year term in office.
In a court hearing Tuesday, Judge Richard J. Billik Jr. dismissed the lawsuit with prejudice, stating in his decision that Hughes' claims are "moot," "legally insufficient," and fail to allege facts upon which any relief should be granted.
The complaint was originally filed April 28, just three weeks after Hughes lost her bid for re-election to the District 113A Board of Education. Her term of service expired May 2, when the four newly-elected board members were sworn in.
In the suit, Hughes accused Superintendent Tim Ricker, former Board President John Wood and current Board Member Lisa Wright of denying her access to confidential records—specifically an audiotape of a closed session meeting and redacted information on a legal invoice.
Correspondence included in the complaint showed that district officials, including Ricker and Wood, denied more than five requests by Hughes to listen to recordings of closed session meetings from Feb. 22, 2009 and Oct. 14, 2009, and several dates in between. The suit also claimed that requests for information regarding accounts payable and checks paid "were consistently ignored."
According to the complaint, Hughes' first request for information was denied by Ricker under the Open Meetings Act, which states that "the verbatim record of a meeting closed to the public shall not be open to public inspection," and that it could only be reviewed by a judge if there were a violation of the law.
Hughes' requests were later denied by district attorneys "for failure to assert a purpose or responsibility which serves as a basis for access to the verbatim recording."
Hughes asked the court to declare the following policies of the defendants to be illegal: placing the burden on her to show the relevance of her requests, denying her access to recordings of closed session meetings and denying access to the district's financial records.
She also asked the court to declare that board members are entitled access "to all board and district documents and other information, without limitation, and without having to pursue access under the Freedom of Information Act."
"It is inappropriate to withhold information from board members," Hughes told Patch in May. "I felt it was important this issue be brought up in the best interest of the public we serve and all future board members. We need to establish that no one else is subject to this type of treatment."
Although Hughes' term expired four days after the suit was filed, the complaint stated that it was "necessary in the public's interest that a declaration of board members' rights of access be established to eliminate incentives for other and future officials to delay and evade compliance with board members' legitimate exercise of their duty to inform themselves of district matters."
The defendants made a combined motion to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming Hughes' complain was moot and lacked standing.
"The minute Hughes lost her status as a board member on May 2, 2011, she lost any right to access school district documents as a board member ... and this court cannot provide the relief that is sought, i.e. board member access to confidential records," the defendants stated.
In his response, the judge ruled in favor of the defendants, noting that the Illinois School Code and District 113A policies cited by Hughes do not confer authority or specific powers to individual board members, but the school board as a whole.
Wright, the district's official spokesperson, announced the court's decision during a school board meeting Tuesday night.
“This demonstrates that the act of filing a lawsuit does not mean your complaint has merit,” she said in a release. “It is unfortunate that considerable time, money and effort has been spent on this matter.”
Hughes is also a plaintiff in another lawsuit against District 113A, which was originally filed in December. She and co-plaintiffs Laura Reigle, Duane Bradley and Louis Emery alleged in the complaint that District 113A administrators and board members knowingly participated in illegal fund transfers, financial mismanagement and concealment that cost Lemont taxpayers $12 million.
The complaint was dismissed in July by Cook County Judge Rita M. Novak, who ruled that it could be refiled with more particularity as to each defendant's actions, and whether they are being sued in their personal or official capacity. It was then refiled in August by attorney Clint Krislov, of Krislov and Associates, and Terrance Norton of the Center for Open Government.
The case is pending in Cook County court.