***Updated 6pm: Check out the city attorney’s “blooper” during last evening’s meeting when he explained why he advised the mayor to adjourn the meeting before council could vote on the matter at hand. I’ve placed a video clip of it at the end of this post, or you could click here for the clip and to comment on Facebook. ***
DeKalb’s city council violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act (OMA) yesterday. It was a violation because the city scheduled a special meeting for Good Friday, which is a legal holiday in this state. Specifically, OMA says this:
Sec. 2.01. All meetings required by this Act to be public shall be held at specified times and places which are convenient and open to the public. No meeting required by this Act to be public shall be held on a legal holiday unless the regular meeting day falls on that holiday.
You can easily find several state departments and offices where Good Friday is not observed, and obviously City of DeKalb doesn’t observe it. Doesn’t matter. If a statute establishes it as a holiday, it’s a legal holiday and you have to watch out for OMA.
And unlike meetings where you could goof up an OMA rule but then save your public body by not taking action (i.e., not actually voting on anything), the legal holiday rule says you can’t even hold the meeting without committing a violation.
I attended yesterday in order to congratulate the council on making a major change in management, to express my understanding of the huge undertaking in finding a new city manager, and to point out that the vacuum created by a city manager’s exit has led to major overspending in the past.
On this last point, I recalled that Mark Biernacki’s retirement in mid-2013 preceded a year of spending that put the city $347,773 over its fiscal 2014 budget. In fact, I advocated for what amounts to a temporary moratorium on spending when it comes to items not included in the current budget, and a lowering of the spending authority threshold for now. Just to tighten things up a bit for what might become a bumpy ride.
The deal on radios that the fire department is seeking — and to be clear, I don’t know if it’s a legit good deal or not, and I did say that — fits the pattern, at least superficially, of city employees’ putting pressure on council to approve a flurry of last-minute “bargains” that often turn out to be anything but.
Regardless, the fact remains we discovered we should not have been discussing any of this yesterday, and we’ll never know whether the city attorney screwed up or was trying to pull a fast one to get the deal through. Either is unacceptable for a contractor who is supposed to be qualified in OMA, has worked at this job for about five years and pulls in well over $200,000 annually.
At the City Barbs Facebook Group, a commenter asked, “What now?” Here’s my reply:
Anyone could contact the attorney general’s public access counselor to ask for a review — that way it could be officially labeled an OMA violation to everyone’s satisfaction. Anyone could go to court, or ask the state’s attorney to go to court, to seek penalties for the violation. Personally, what I saw of the city council’s reaction makes me want to wait and see first if council itself takes action to follow up, such as:
–acknowledgment of the error
–apology to the citizens
–starting from scratch on the radio issue
–public reprimand of the city attorney
–review of the attorney’s contract
That way we can see if council members choose actions of good government over being apologists for the city attorney, who seems to reign over a cult of personality at city hall. Let’s find out how large and strong the cult is. There would still be time for legal action if they fail us.
As far as I’m concerned, the resignation of the DeKalb city manager this week signals a heavy lift on the part of the mayor and city council. This is not the same council we had a year ago. I believe it’s quite possible this public body will take steps to remedy the situation, and am willing to give them a little time to do it.
Video: DeKalb city attorney Dean Frieders begins to explain to the city council that a public meeting “cannot be conducted” but then amends himself to “cannot take final action” on a state holiday.