By Jim Hagerty
DEKALB — The NIU Board of Trustees violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act when it agreed to give former President Doug Baker a severance package worth $600,000, a circuit court judge ruled this week.
The decision was returned Wednesday, Nov. 22, by DeKalb County Judge Brad Waller, who ruled that the board did not adequately make available to the public terms of Baker’s severance deal.
The agreement Baker had with the board is now null and void, Waller ruled. The judge decided the board’s agenda item, “Presidential Employment – Review and Approval,” was not clear enough to the public that it could have pertained to the president’s termination or severance, WNIJ reported.
“No ordinary citizen could possibly have had any reasonable expectation that he or she knew that the agenda item discussion was to focus on anything more than a review and approval of the president,” Waller said.
The board accepted Baker’s resignation in June, after going into closed session. The package was paid nearly in full when DeKalb County Board member Misty Haji-Sheikh filed a lawsuit to stop future payments. Waller granted a temporary restraining order in August, barring NIU from paying Baker until the matter could be resolved in court.
Northern Illinois says the board was within the law when they approved the agreement, and to void it now could expose the school to a potential breach of contract lawsuit. While no such suits have been announced, NIU’s legal counsel is review Wednesday’s decision and details of how the package was approved.
Whether NIU plans to file an appeal is not known. A spokesman could not be reached for comment.
Haji-Sheikh, who brought the lawsuit a citizen not a county board member, apologized for t the public resources spent by bringing the matter to court, but said the situation could have been avoided had the board taken a vote on the package in open session.
“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,” she said. “I believe that everyone should follow the law, and so that was my whole intent behind this.”
Waller has not yet ruled on Haji-Sheikh’s request that NIU pay her legal fees or whether the board also violated university rules. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Dec. 8.
Baker announced June 15 that he was stepping down amid an investigation by the Governor’s Office of the Executive Inspector General accusing him and others of mismanagement with the hiring of consultants. He denied any wrongdoing and laid the blame on administrators, who he claimed routinely overpaid consultants and kept them on staff longer than they were needed.
“The result has been that the university community has continued to be distracted by the allegations in the report,” Baker said in a statement this summer. “Given the challenges we face and the hard work ahead, I simply couldn’t stand by and let this situation continue to fester.” R.
— With Associated Press Reports