Column: Why make the public sit around?

When residents attend school board meetings, they don't want to sit outside closed doors.

Sure, school boards and other public bodies need to hold closed sessions, where they can discuss specific employees, pending litigation and collective bargaining.

The Rock Falls High School board holds its closed meetings soon after it begins its sessions. That means residents and staff have to wait 30 minutes or more before open sessions resume.

How inconvenient! Why not just close the doors at the end of the meeting? When the board makes people wait around while it meets in secret, isn't it discouraging community involvement?

I called Rock Falls school board members to get answers, but I wasn't successful.

From the minutes of recent Rock Falls meetings, I noticed that the board holds a closed session during just about every meeting. Must secret stuff be discussed so often?

It's not a requirement that a public body hold closed sessions all the time; in fact, they should be the exception. The Morrison City Council has been holding fewer such meetings, and the Lee and Whiteside county boards rarely have them.

But for the Sterling school board, closed sessions are routine. The board holds its closed session at 6 p.m.; its open meeting is scheduled for an hour later.

That almost compels board members to continue talking about secret matters for nearly the whole hour. Why not just meet behind closed doors at meeting's end?

I attended a Sterling school board meeting recently, and it met in closed session for the hour beforehand and again afterward.

The Dixon school board holds its share of closed sessions, but not as many as Sterling and Rock Falls.

This wouldn't be important if the school boards were private corporations. But they do the people's business.

So when they meet a lot in secret session, the public – and this annoying reporter – may well question the practice.

Blanton: Examples of cooperation

Some say local government officials should consider merging their agencies if that would mean better services.

Recently, I noted that most agencies have reasons against consolidation. That's why we have thousands of townships in Illinois, when most states get along without them.

Local officials often disagree with the contention that local government agencies don't work together. Rock Falls Mayor David Blanton is one of them. He called me to his City Hall office recently after my column about government consolidation appeared.

He showed me a thank-you card from 2007 on his desk. It was signed by Ted Aggen, Sterling's mayor from 1995 to 2007. Aggen, who died in 2010, wrote the card shortly after he left office.

"Two words can hardly say it all, but thank you for making my 12 years as mayor of Sterling as great as they were," Aggen wrote. "The relationship between our two cities is greatly improved. Let's continue to work together."

Blanton said Sterling and Rock Falls often cooperate. For instance, he said, they lend each other equipment. Rock Falls, which has more female police officers, has them sometimes go to Sterling when the police there need to have a female suspect patted down, Blanton said.

Blanton said he often has lunch with Sterling Mayor Skip Lee, sometimes including Dixon Mayor Jim Burke.

Blanton remembers when a business was interested in the Sauk Valley a few years ago, but it needed rail access. That made Sterling the better choice, the mayor said. So Blanton put in letters of support for Sterling to get the company.

"I'd rather it go to Sterling than Iowa," he said.

Blanton is a Republican, while Lee and Burke are Democrats. Blanton said he has always voted for the best person for the job, regardless of party.

He points to certificates he has received from former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar and Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan, which hang alongside each other on his office wall. He also has a photo of President Barack Obama hanging behind his desk. Why? "He's the president," the mayor said.

Some say that the city's fire departments should combine. In some ways, they already have. They respond to each other's structure fires, and Rock Falls Deputy Chief Gary Cook is in his second year as the chief of Sterling's department.

But Blanton said he couldn't see any savings if the departments formally consolidated. They still would need the same number of firefighters, he said.

Nonetheless, he said, Rock Falls is always on the lookout for ways in which cooperation can improve services.

Sauk Valley Media reporter David Giuliani covers the Whiteside and Lee county governments, Morrison and other smaller communities. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525.