Bloomington Alderman Alleges Open Meetings Act Violations

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.

Trial Set for Free Speech Lawsuit — and It’s Soon

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.

Belated High Five for District 428

Talk of a possible teachers’ strike last month was tense and emotional for a lot of us. When the school board and the teachers’ union came together at nearly the last minute, I felt relieved and psychologically moved past it right away.

But that was wrong.

What I should have done, and will do now, is to recognize that District 428 put out a bunch of information about the negotiations at its website. At first they posted the final offers from each side. Then they added a document clarifying the sticking points between the two groups, and others that compared District 428 work hours and pay to other districts in the area. Anyone who cared to read them was totally in the loop.

The district also front-paged a link to all these documents for easy access.

Well done, District 428.

Freeport Township Board Exploring Legality of Property Purchase Made by Its Old Board

They are doing it by filing a lawsuit to let a judge decide. From the Journal-Standard:

Freeport Township now looks to the court system to see if last year’s joint purchase of the property at 206 E. Stephenson St. with the Veterans Assistance Commission [of Stephenson County] was legal.

“An opinion by attorney Greg Pelini says that a township can co-own a building with a municipality,” said Mike Phillips, attorney for the Freeport Township. “The VAC[SC] is not a municipality and according to the opinion we are not authorized to co-own a building with them. We have no authority to do it.”

The pending lawsuit includes the VAC[SC], Security First Title Company and local businessman Dave Fonda as defendants. The township and VAC[SC] jointly bought the property that they currently share from Fonda for $366,971 and moved there in January.

The basis for the lawsuit is three counts, according to the article. The court is being asked to determine whether the VAC[SC] is prohibited from entering into contracts to buy property unless it’s partnering with a municipality, whether the electors of the township should have voted on the purchase, and whether the township failed to appropriate funding to cover operational expenses in the new building.

I guess theoretically a positive finding on any of these counts could result in vacating the purchase, though the township seems to prefer just to find a way to make it legal if it currently isn’t. The township is not asking for money damages.

However, back when the deal was made, a Stephenson County blogger found even more to trouble residents about the joint purchase than what is found in the suit. Continue reading Freeport Township Board Exploring Legality of Property Purchase Made by Its Old Board

Mercer County & the Role of Transparency in Good Government

Illinois’ Mercer County lies south of the Quad Cities and comprises part of its metro area.

Perhaps you’ve heard that the county’s treasurer, Mike Bertelsen, has been arrested and charged with stealing at least $13,000 from the county’s 911 Fund, the result of investigations that followed a forensic audit in the county office.

The Illinois Policy Institute has pointed out Mercer County transparency failures that IPI counts as red flags:

  • A lack of online transparency
  • A failure to file annual reports on a timely basis
  • Violations of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
  • Violations of the Open Meetings Act (OMA)
  • I’ve suggested before that failures to turn in Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs) and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) annual reports to the state might signal trouble, as tardiness correlated with financial corruption cases in Alorton and Dixon.

    The violations of OMA and FOIA are either mostly or wholly related to Mercer County’s hideously dysfunctional and incomplete website. FYI: Dixon’s wasn’t much better at the time Rita Crundwell’s crimes were discovered. Continue reading Mercer County & the Role of Transparency in Good Government

    Ethics “In a Nutshell”

    Robert Wechsler, director of CityEthics.org, has just released a new intro to local government ethics called “Local Government Ethics Programs in a Nutshell”, in which he has distilled an 800-page digital book and years of blog posts into a 27-page resource for public officials, journalists and others interested in good government. Here’s a bit out of the intro:

    Government ethics is not about being “good” or “a person of integrity.” It’s not something officials learn at home, at school, or in their house of worship. In fact, conduct that is praiseworthy outside of government, such as helping a family member get a job or returning a favor one has been given, is considered wrong in a government context…It is about preserving institutional rather than personal integrity. Government ethics decision-making should be just another professional routine.

    We also sometimes talk about ethics in the public domain as public morality vs. private morality, and I favor an approach that deals with what to do when conflicts occur, not if. Continue reading Ethics “In a Nutshell”

    Write-In Candidates in DeKalb County So Far

    *Update: Final list of candidates is here.*

    In the article, “DeKalb County Certifies Preliminary Ballot,” the county clerk stated that there are about six people who have filed as write-in candidates in April’s Consolidated Election so far. As of 9:30 a.m. today there were indeed exactly six:

  • Michael Franckowiak – Genoa Park Board
  • Veronica Bruhl – Kaneland Board of Education
  • Rick Goken – Shabbona Township Trustee
  • Virginia E. Toppe – Malta Library Trustee
  • Charles G. Rose – DeKalb Regional Board of Education
  • Antonio C. Amaya – Genoa Park Board
  • We could see additional declarations of write-in campaigns this week because the deadline is Thursday, after which the final list of candidates will be posted at dekalbclerk.com.

    While I’m at it I’d like to recognize John Acardo and the Office of the DeKalb County Clerk & Recorder for their high standards of professionalism and customer service. Nobody answers requests for information faster than they do, the communication is very good and I like how I am treated.

    A Visit to DeKalb County’s New Website

    DeKalb County put its new website online this week.

    The county says the overhaul was not made in response to the Illinois Policy Institute’s recent grade of D-, but has been in the works for about a year.

    DeKalb County has put lots online for quite some time, but finding it or even getting a real sense of what all is there could be a problem. Continue reading A Visit to DeKalb County’s New Website

    Winnebago Forest Preserve District Eliminates Public Safety Job

    ***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!

    Lots of Good FOIA and OMA Action in Winnebago Forest Preserve District

    *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.