WEST LOOP – Leaders of a top-ranked West Loop elementary school violated the law by blocking a neighbor from recording a public meeting about plans for the school.
Last week, the then-chairman of Skinner West Elementary School’s Local School Council got into a shouting match with a parent who was questioning a rumored expansion of the school’s selective-enrollment classical program. The incident was caught on video by West Loop resident Moshe Tamssot, who was ultimately forced to stop recording.
Using his cell phone camera, Tamssot, who runs the True West Loop Facebook page, filmed the argument between Skinner West LSC chairman Michael McMurray and the parent in the audience.
But he was told twice by Skinner West LSC members to stop filming the public meeting.
In the first video, at about the 1:03 mark, Tamssot is told by board member Melvin Flowers to stop filming
“Excuse me, you with the camera,” Flowers says. “You need a release to do that. So right now, you don’t have permission to do that.”
Tamssot then asks if the Local School Council meeting qualifies as a public meeting, and asserts his right to film the public meeting.
In a second video, Flowers again tells Tamssot to stop filming.
“Sir, I’m telling you right now. I’m a lawyer, and you do not have permission to do that,” he says. “You have been told not to do that.”
Concurrently, LSC member Sharlene Hobson tells Tamssot that he does not have permission to record the meeting.
While other people in the audience can be heard encouraging Tamssot to record, the LSC member halted the meeting until the filming ceased.
“Basically — the audience acquiesced because he wouldn’t get an answer [about whether the classical program was expanding] until I stopped recording,” Tamssot said.
According to the Illinois’ Open Meetings Act, a state law that protects the peoples’ right to be informed on public business, recording is allowed at public meetings. The statute states that “any person may record the proceedings at meetings required to be open by this Act by tape, film or other means.”
Given the history of CPS and the Skinner West LSC announcing large projects in closed-door meetings, Tamssot makes a point to show up and record when he can to keep neighbors in the loop.
In July 2016, CPS security barred reporters from entering the public meeting where Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the city’s plan to expand the overcrowded school. At the time, one media expert said the move to keep reporters out of was a clear violation of the Open Meetings Act.
Later that year, in November 2016, officials from two public agencies — the Chicago Public Schools and Public Building Commission — revealed new renderings of the multimillion dollar expansion at Skinner West in a closed-door meeting.
Skinner West parents, teachers and staff were invited to the November meeting, but West Loop residents who were not Skinner West parents — or other members of the public, for that matter — were not notified of the meeting ahead of time, despite the fact that renderings and key plans of the $20 million taxpayer-funded project were being revealed.
Skinner West Local School Council members were present at the July and November 2016 meetings.
In a statement, CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton confirmed that all LSC meetings at CPS schools are public, and as such, recording is allowed.
“LSC meetings are public and filming is allowed as long as it is not disruptive to the meeting,” CPS officials said in a statement.
CPS officials committed to having a conversation with the LSC members about Open Meetings Act rules following last week’s meeting.
“The district will also have a conversation with the LSC to ensure they are aware of their obligations under the Open Meetings Act,” district officials wrote in an emailed statement.
New LSC members will be officially instated on July 1, and will undergo training which includes compliance with the Illinois Open Meetings Act laws, the statement said.
“This is a cut and dry violation of the Open Meeting Act…but there is no clear-cut precedent on what the remedy is going to be,” said Ben Silver, a community lawyer at Citizen Advocacy Center, a group dedicated to making government more accountable.
If the LSC were found in violation of the law, punishment could range from a reprimand from the Illinois Attorney General’s office to the meeting being invalidated, Silver said.
Don Craven, a longtime attorney for the Illinois Press Association, agreed.
“The Open Meetings Act specifically allows for audio and video recordings of public meetings,” Craven said. “They should have just kept on with their meeting.”
Flowers and Hobson deferred questions to Luis Garcia-Juarez at the Office of Local School Council Relations. Garcia-Juarez deferred all questions to CPS’ media relations department.
Tamssot frequently records community meetings and live streams them on the True West Loop Facebook page. He created the Facebook page to “create an inclusive, equal and transparent West Loop” that all residents can participate in.
Tamssot said he was disappointed that the other LSC members — some of whom are West Loop neighbors — did not assert his right to record the public meeting.
“We know what our rights are. It’s not intimidating, it’s disappointing,” Tamssot said. “It’s been an issue for this council, this is nothing new.”