New law, new way to email Oak Park and River Forest board members

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By Terry Dean

Staff reporter

A change in state law coming in January might impact how Oak Park and River Forest residents directly interact with their local elected officials via email. 

Public Act 098-0930, which covers emails sent from the public to local officials, has been revised and takes effect Jan. 1, 2015. The law will require municipalities to create a single link on their main websites for emailing an entire elected board. 

The City of Chicago is exempt from the requirement, because the law only applies to municipalities with less than 1 million residents. The law also only applies to local government websites and not their social media sites.  

Many local elected officials in the state, like in Oak Park and River Forest, have individual public emails or email links already posted on websites. Some school districts, like Oak Park and River Forest High School, already have a general email address to the entire board on their site. Taxing bodies that do not already will have to create one within 90 days after the law takes effect. 

The new law was discussed by the District 97 school board at their regular meeting Dec. 16. The district currently has individual board email addresses on its website and plans to create the single uniform one by Jan. 1, said Chris Jasculca, D97's director of policy, planning and communication.

To comply with the new law, the district, Jasculca added, plans to update its policy concerning electronic communications sent the board from the public. 

Among the concerns expressed by administration and the board is how the law will affect the way board members interact to constituents via emails? 

The public can still send questions about district issues to individual board members but are encouraged to use the general email, according to the district's proposed revision to policy 2140.

If they send emails to individual board members, they'll receive a "thank you for sending your email" response, and that the email will be forwarded to the entire board, as well as the superintendent, who will decide which appropriate administrator should respond to the individual. 

Jasculca said the district wants to both comply with the new law and make sure they're also in compliance with the Open Meetings Act. D97 constituents are encouraged to use the single email on the website (op97.org) for contacting the board, Jasculca said.

"I think the general viewpoint is that there may be opportunities where a single board member could imply that they're representing the board. It creates difficulty because, obviously, you have quorum issues if you start having a conversation via email about an issue," Jasculca said.

The district vetted the new law with the Illinois Association of School Board's legal department, which recommended the revised policy language. Jasculca said the district is concerned about limiting open and transparent communication via emails from the public under this new law. D97 board members also questioned whether dialogue via emails would be stifled. 

The public can still send their concerns about a district issue to individual board members, but if a broader board discussion is needed on that issue, that will need to take place in an open meeting, Jasculca said as outlined in the revised policy. 

District 200, which governs OPRF, is following suit and revising its policy with the similar language. Jasculca said D97 will also include information on its website explaining these changes under the new law. Some board protocols will also need to be revised, like D97's stating that the board president will respond to certain issues. That will no longer apply. 

The law does create some complications for the district and public, Jasculca explained.

"No individual board member, and that includes the board president, is technically allowed, under the law, to respond an email, letter or any communication from a community member on behalf of the board," Jasculca said. 

The school districts' policy revisions are good approach to the new law, according to attorney Julie Tappendorf, who's a partner with Chicago-based law firm Ancel Glink. She has blogged about the new law, which she describes as "confusing" because it doesn't fall under the Open Meetings Act where it seems to belong. 

The act has been revised over the years to make sure governments are transparent with the public, but this new law, however, falls under the Local Records Act, Tappendorf said.

The act also isn't clear if municipalities with board emails already on their websites are exempt from having to include a single uniform one, Tappendorf said. 

"This is another way to ensure governments are open and receptive to public concerns; to have an open place in meetings, and to make it easier for the public to interact with their officials, but this is an odd place for this," she said.  

Neither D97 nor D200 are clients of Ancel Glink.

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