DeKALB – The $600,000 severance package awarded to former Northern Illinois University President Doug Baker in June was declared null and void Wednesday after a DeKalb County judge determined that the school’s Board of Trustees was in violation of the Open Meetings Act.
DeKalb County Board member Misty Haji-Sheikh filed the original motion in June claiming that the agenda item “presidential employment (review and approval)” during the board’s June 15 meeting, during which Baker announced his resignation, was not enough to fully inform the public of what would transpire, thus violating the act.
“I’m a little sad that we had to go this far, because NIU was told that all [the board] had to do was retake the vote and this would never have gone to court, and I’m sorry for the fees and the problems this has caused, but it wasn’t up to me to take this to court,” Haji-Sheikh said.
DeKalb County Judge Bradley Waller said the board chose to describe this agenda item in vague and ambiguous terms, leaving no reason for a member of the public to think it meant anything but a presidential review. The board also made no mention of termination, separation or transition.
“It is the right of people to know what their governing bodies do,” Haji-Sheikh said. “That is the intent of the Open Meetings Act.”
Waller had granted a temporary restraining order in August barring the university from taking any further action on the severance agreement after it was discovered that Baker already had been paid about $570,000. The order later was extended in September to the date of the hearing.
Haji-Sheikh said she is not sure how to proceed regarding the money that already was paid, but she reiterated that she does not stand to gain anything monetarily from the suit.
“My whole goal was to get NIU to comply with the law,” she said. “Being a lawmaker myself, I believe that everyone should follow the law, and so that was my whole intent behind this.”
A statement from NIU said that the university thought it was in compliance with its action and is deciding what its next move will be.
“We believed that the university complied with all of the requirements of the Illinois Open Meetings Act and the new amendments to the NIU law,” the statement read. “In light of today’s decision, we will review the ruling and assess our options before deciding how to proceed.”
The temporary restraining order put a hold on the $30,000 Baker is due in legal fees. A status hearing on the case is scheduled for 9 a.m. Dec. 8, at which point Haji-Sheikh said it’s her understanding that the court will rule on how much NIU must pay toward her attorney’s fees.
Baker resigned at the end of June after the release of a report from the Office of Executive Inspector General concluding that he mismanaged the university by hiring several employees as high-paying consultants and improperly classified their positions to skirt state collective bidding requirements.
Before public participation during the June 15 meeting, Baker announced that he would be stepping down, as the results of the report were a “significant distraction.” After public participation and once all other agenda items were discussed, the Board of Trustees went into closed session for about seven hours.
Once they returned, the board went over the severance agreement and announced the pending approval of Lisa Freeman as acting president until a replacement can be found.
Freeman’s appointment was approved by the Board of Trustees during its June 29 meeting, making her the first female president in the university’s 120-plus year history.
Gregory Brady, general counsel for the board, had said that the meeting satisfied all of the requirements of the Open Meetings Act and advertised an open meeting at which the president’s employment would be taken up.