The recent court victory by Misty Haji-Sheikh over Northern Illinois University’s Board of Trustees was a hollow one.
The winner didn’t win anything. The losers weren’t personally liable for anything. The lawyers and the former university president got paid regardless, and the public institution of NIU covered all the costs.
This should have been worked out long before it got this far.
It was an odd twist of fate that Haji-Sheikh, a critic of former NIU President Doug Baker who urged the board to renege on the $600,000 severance deal it reached with him, ended up adding almost $56,000 in legal fees and close to $1,000 in court costs to the university’s tab.
DeKalb County Judge Bradley Waller sided with Haji-Sheikh, finding that NIU’s Board of Trustees had violated the Open Meetings Act when they approved a separation agreement for former President Doug Baker in June. The board’s meeting agenda for June 15 was too vague: It listed “Presidential employment (review and approval)” as a means of describing Baker’s plan to resign in exchange for a handsome payout. Trustees only voted on the plan after spending almost seven hours meeting behind closed doors.
We support open government and thought that the board’s agenda should have been clearer; Baker’s severance benefits were excessive considering he was found to have mismanaged the university.
However, we fail to see what was accomplished through this lawsuit, other than making the whole affair more expensive for NIU.
After NIU’s board was found to have violated the act, and the agreement was declared null and void by a judge, the trustees simply approved the agreement again at their meeting in December.
What else were they going to do? They already had paid Baker $570,000 of the more than $600,000 he was owed – something that was no secret when Haji-Sheikh decided to sue.
Haji-Sheikh said all the board had to do was vote again and the issue would have dropped. NIU officials said there was a restraining order that they thought prevented them from taking any more action on the agreement.
“She said, they said,” what’s the difference anyway? In the end, this legal fight has produced no tangible public benefit at considerable public cost, and both sides share in the blame. The NIU board already has come in for deserved criticism during a recent state audit.
Maybe this episode will provide a cautionary tale for other public bodies when they’re tempted to be dodgy about what they’re going to discuss at a meeting. Maybe it will change the attitude of the NIU board going forward.
The university is going to be compelled to invest almost $57,000, in addition to what it’s paid its own lawyers, to find out.
There are much better ways the university could have invested its money.