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.

Council will be discussing more specific rules for public participation (PDF pp. 31-33) than what’s on the books now.

It includes prohibitions whenever the chair of the meeting feels like it.

3. Public Comment Not Permitted: The City reserves the right to conduct public meetings at which public comment is not received, when the chair of the meeting determines that it is necessary to do so in order to provide for orderly and efficient governance. Notwithstanding the foregoing, unless the City is responding to an actual emergency or is otherwise permitted by law to act in such a fashion, as determined by the chair, the City shall not take final action on any item of public business when the sole discussion of such item has been at a meeting where public comment was not permitted.

Regular readers already know that a common interpretation of the new Open Meetings Act provision taking effect in January is this: if it’s a public meeting, the public gets to speak, period; and that a unit of local government may set rules for how public comment is conducted, but not whether it is.

Has the city attorney checked with the Attorney General about this? It doesn’t say in the memo.

I also wonder why the city is suddenly concerned with orderly and efficient meetings.

Ironically, the participation rules are described as promoting the goal to “ensure vigorous public involvement in the City’s legislative process” yet will be discussed Monday in the Committee of the Whole meeting, during which public comment has always been prohibited.

Changes such as the addition of the right to speak during government meetings will take effect in 2013.

(g) Any person shall be permitted an opportunity to address public officials under the rules established and recorded by the public body.

Looks like we’ll be allowed our three minutes apiece at all public meetings beginning next January — well, most of us will, at least.

See Boone County Watchdog for more information about the changes to OMA.

***Update 1:30 p.m.: Their lips say no, but the timing feels like there’s some piling on.***

**Update 9:45 a.m.: Here’s the latest put up by RRStar. I do NOT agree that WCFPD has a credibility problem (stated at the end of the article). Instead, I’d argue that any credibility problem is Randy Olson’s alone at this point and that WCFPD made all the right moves to set right a trust-busting situation that Olson created.**

To summarize: Former Winnebago Forest Preserve District president Randy Olson created and staffed a new public safety job even though the majority of the commission disapproved of his decisions.

Here is what the other commissioners did about it:

It took some time — and for Olson to actually make the hire — for the board to pick up the additional vote it needed to demote him. The fifth commissioner professed herself a good friend of his but busted him anyway. (Olson still serves, just not as president. It will be interesting to see what the voters say if he runs again.)

Well done, #wcfpd!

*Update 10:45 p.m.: Olson is out as district president! The story is here. But that’s not all! Find bonus Chuck Sweeney here with free shipping!*

The Rockford Register Star used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain e-mails to and from Winnebago Forest Preserve district president Randy Olson that trace the process of creating a job for a person he evidently likes very much.

Randy Olson plotted for months to give Roscoe cop Theresa Rawaillot a well-paid forest preserve police job, a trail of emails shows.

And when his plans hit roadblocks along the way, he ultimately decided to change the way forest preserves are policed.

The job creation efforts involved bulldozing the district’s executive director as well as ignoring the majority of its board of commissioners.

It may even have violated the Open Meetings Act, and thanks to a complaint made by an concerned citizen, the Attorney General is planning to investigate the allegation.

President Olson remains unrepentant.

Olson has said that commissioners have focused too much on the process to bring Rawaillot on board, which distracts from the goal: to save the district money and improve police presence in the preserves.

At least four of the commissioners do not agree that the ends justify the means, and I’ll bet they hate getting stuck with a police officer who thinks this is OK, too.

In a continuation of this story, Winnebago Forest Preserve District president Randy Olson has created and staffed a public safety job without the approval — and indeed in defiance of — a majority of the board.

And, it appears the move might even be legal:

Olson’s authorization of the hire is a rare move in the forest preserve district, but the Downstate Forest Preserve District Act appears to give him the power to do so: “The president of (the forest preserve board) shall have power to appoint such employees as may be necessary.”

That appears to conflict with the Winnebago County Forest Preserve’s bylaws, which says the president can make appointments “subject to confirmation by the board.” The board’s attorney has advised commissioners that state statutes trump local rules, Kalousek said.

Olson’s plan is an alternative to contracting with the Winnebago County Sheriff’s police for protection in the preserves. The problems, according to a memo written by four members of the board, are that Olson failed to make a case for his actions to the rest of the board, and that he improperly used a closed session meeting to try to get other board members to go along them.

The board could remove Olson as president, but would need to pick up a fifth vote to do so.

Back in February I alerted you to the resignation of the mayor of Alorton, because it seemed the investigation and scandal had something to do with Tax Increment Financing (TIF).

Turns out it had little if anything to do with TIF and a lot to do with shakedowns at traffic stops.

Now Alorton is back in the news due to the actions of its new mayor, whom the St. Clair County state’s attorney has been trying to remove from office. Read the rest of this entry