Via The Pantagraph today:
Ward 4 Alderman Judy Stearns on Dec. 6 filed a request for review with the Illinois attorney general’s public access counselor, which has since asked for more information from the city.
She alleged the council during a Nov. 15 closed session discussed issues not exempt from the state’s Open Meetings Act, including broad discussions of general hiring practices, a sought-after “culture change” and “why it is critical that the Council be totally united on the changes to be made, including the comment by our City Manager (David Hales) that a 5 to 4 vote is not acceptable.”
The other side of the story is that there may have been a couple of stray comments about policy in the midst of a discussion of specific employees. Discussion of individuals is an allowed exemption to OMA.
However, Ald. Stearns lists in the Request for Review seven non-exempt topics she says were discussed during the closed session. Stearns said she eventually left the closed session due to the non-exempt topics and that she has since consulted the Citizen Advocacy Center.
The required recording of the closed session will tell the tale to the PAC.
Don’t hold your breath for results, though. I’ve been waiting for an opinion on an OMA complaint for almost a year.
A link to this city council special meeting agenda for Wednesday dropped into my inbox October 9.
I am 99.9% sure the closed meeting is about creating a short list of candidates for city manager, which is important to us and by no means a secret.
But unless you recognize the significance of the timing, how would you know? You’d have to take extra steps to find out.
Next time they brag about their openness and terrific customer service, laugh.
Meanwhile, the default response to this useless agenda should be: “What else are you keeping secret that you shouldn’t?” Because that’s what unnecessary mystery does to trust.
The plaintiff in a federal free-speech case with implications for local government meetings finally has a court date: October 21. From the Rock River Times:
The plaintiff in the lawsuit, Rockford resident and former Winnebago County Board chairman candidate Michael Castronovo, alleges multiple violations of his free-speech rights at Winnebago County Board meetings and at Public Works committee meetings.
Some of these alleged violations may be related to the December 2008 change made to county ordinance 2-65 where “zoning items, personnel matters, or any pending or threatened litigation involving the County” became restricted topics for citizens at county board meetings.
Though it hasn’t yet gone to trial, the case has survived several pre-trial hearings. During one of the hearings, the presiding judge confirmed that all government meetings — even committee meetings — must include public comment sessions per the Illinois Open Meetings Act.
The lawsuit itself, however, alleges Constitutional violations of the First Amendment; specifically, prohibitions on the content of public comment.
The city manager, not the mayor, is the chief executive officer in DeKalb’s council-manager form of government. Ideally we should be paying as much attention to selection of the city manager as we do the mayoral election — especially these days, when the city council declines to put expiration dates on their managers’ contracts and allows the manager to spend up to $20,000 at a time without council approval.
Personal conclusions notwithstanding, there is a process in place for hiring a city manager that is supposed to let the cream rise to the top. Recently I sifted through documents obtained through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act to bring you an update. Read the rest of this entry
From a memo attached to the Committee of the Whole (CoW) meeting agenda for August 12:
1. 2.04(a)This section indicates that regular meetings of the City Council shall be convened no sooner than 7:00pm. As last meeting illustrated, when the City Council does not have material for a Committee of the Whole meeting, the Council may seek to move the regular meeting up to 6:00pm. Accordingly, a revision is suggested, to indicate that the COW or Council meeting shall not start prior to 6:00pm, unless otherwise directed by the Council for a special meeting.
Yes, the council violated its ordinance governing meeting conduct last meeting. But as long as state law — such as Open Meetings Act — is not violated, they can ignore any ordinance they want without penalty, except of course for the hits to their sterling reputations. Council can also review (and change) the rules at any time, which actually isn’t a bad idea for a new council. Read the rest of this entry
City of DeKalb employees and the group Ellwood Historic Neighborhood have hatched a new plan just in time to take up a line item in the FY2014 budget: Buy up multi-family homes in the north 5th Ward, convert them to single-family and resell each property at a loss. In fact:
“We have worked with a local realtor and contractor to identify a willing seller of a multiunit house in the neighborhood,” said David Castro, a member of the Ellwood House Neighborhood Group, a group of residents who have worked with the city in the past to restore the area.
Council has put this plan on hold. Good for you, council members! Personally, I would, too. I agree with Ald. Jacobson that DeKalb should not get into the business of property speculation. First and foremost because it is so, so bad at it (see: empty lots downtown). Read the rest of this entry
The two sides in a settlement conference on a federal lawsuit regarding public input at public meetings were deemed “too far apart” to come to terms, so it is expected a trial date will be set at a conference hearing June 21.
Two allegations from Count II of the suit, having to do with possible Freedom of Speech violations made by Winnebago County and some county officials, have survived a Motion of Summary Judgment. They are as follows (PDF):
Winnebago County’s motion for summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part. Specifically, Count II remains as to the allegations that defendants violated Castronovo’s free speech rights by refusing to permit him to speak at the public works committee meetings and to the allegations that the Board Chairman instructed Castronovo that he could not speak before the Board as a whole if he were to name names in his speech.
If the Court finds that the chair did instruct Mike “C” Castronovo not to name names, it would constitute a content restriction, which is a First Amendment no-no. As for the allegation that the county did not permit his input at all during some meetings, the judge noted that the public works committee meetings are already covered by the state’s Open Meetings Act and as such must permit public comment during their meetings except under the exemptions for closed sessions. Read the rest of this entry
In the course of a year I submit to the city at least a half-dozen requests under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The vast majority of requests for information are filled as a matter of routine. Every once in awhile, though, the city denies something I’ve asked for by citing an exemption under FOIA, in which case I ask the Public Access Counselor (PAC) of the Office of the Attorney General to review the decision.
The review process naturally feels a bit combative. Of course I’ve asked for information I feel entitled to under the law, while the city obviously has concluded that its reasons for denial are solid. The PAC acts as referee.
But if the Request for Review under FOIA can get a little contentious, the same process under the Open Meetings Act (OMA) almost surely will be. With FOIA, it’s usually a matter of either being vindicated in the denial or being told to release information. With OMA, the PAC is investigating an allegation of lawbreaking for which penalties can apply.
A video recording from the last city council meeting alerted me to the PAC review of an alleged OMA violation by the City of DeKalb in October 2012. Since you probably will not hear about it anywhere else, I want to tell you.
Even more importantly, I would like to compare the facts as I understand them, to the city attorney’s report of the matter. Read the rest of this entry
**Update: You may have noticed we were offline most of the day yesterday, due to the host’s making a change in server hardware. The last step, restoration of data via a backup, left a draft version of this post that I’ve tinkered with and republished.
Winnebago County has opened up its board committee meetings to public comment, according to an RRStar.com article.
There’s a federal lawsuit involved and the judge in the case has confirmed the requirement for public comment, though the county claims it has always planned to comply with the new provision of the Open Meetings Act anyhow. The Open Meetings Act is a state law.
The county began to allow public comment at committee meetings after the newly elected board organized on Dec. 3. The move was needed to comply with a 2011 change to the Open Meetings Act.
Mike “C” Castronovo filed the lawsuit Feb. 23, 2011 in part because he was denied the ability to speak at a May 2009 Public Works Committee meeting.
Castronovo’s lawsuit stems from a time before the change to the Open Meetings Act, said Deputy State’s Attorney Dave Kurlinkus. The decision to open meetings for public comment was not a response to Castronovo’s lawsuit, “but it certainly was called to our attention through it,” Kurlinkus said.
Maybe it wasn’t a response to the lawsuit, and maybe it was. But hearing from a federal judge on the matter must be somewhat reinforcing, yes? Read the rest of this entry
The new state’s attorney for the county is “reviewing” the following incident:
Election of the chairman was listed on the County Board’s public agenda.
Members, wanting to discuss the contentious subject of who should chair the board after a prearranged agreement fell apart during public discussion at the meeting, first suggested going into recess and heading to separate meeting rooms[...]
Schmack advised the board such a move would be in violation of the Open Meetings Act. Then, County Board members suggested standing at ease to allow an ad-hoc committee to meet, which Schmack also advised against. During the roughly 15-minute ordeal in the public portion of the meeting, board members Paul Stoddard, D-DeKalb, and Charles Foster, R-Shabbona, were in off-microphone discussions with each other.
The board eventually voted to stand at ease and divided into two groups to talk about who they wanted to elect.
The Illinois Senate goes “at ease” sometimes. Here’s an example (PDF p. 29).
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Senate, the hour of 9:20 standard Senate time having arrived, the Committee on Assignments will meet immediately in the President’s Anteroom. Will all the members of the Committee on Assignments please report to the President’s Anteroom immediately? The Senate stands at ease. (at ease)
Here’s another example (see 11:48 update). Clearly, members who are “at ease” are waiting around for the official meeting to reconvene. They are not conducting the people’s business.
Keep in mind as well: not all provisions of the Open Meetings Act apply to the bodies of the General Assembly as they do to local units of Illinois government.
I believe a violation of the OMA probably did occur.
Furthermore, the thrashing about for a loophole when their partisan machinations fell apart does not speak well for either party.