DIXON – Want to find out about the debates during Lee County’s wind farm hearings? You’ll have to attend.
For years, the county provided detailed minutes of its Zoning Board of Appeals, which deals with wind farms, among other issues. It stopped doing that in September.
Now, the county lists only the names of those who testify, but gives none of the content of their testimony.
Other counties, on the other hand, provide a more detailed record of their zoning hearings.
In July, Lee County started hearings for a proposed wind farm in the southwest corner of the county.
The company, Ireland-based Mainstream Renewable Power, hired a court reporter to transcribe the hearings. At first, it gave transcripts to the county.
In August, residents asked to see the transcripts, but the county gave conflicting answers. The county’s zoning officer, Chris Henkel, let people review them in his office, but State’s Attorney Henry Dixon denied a resident access to the records. The resident, attorney Frances Mitchell, appealed the matter to the state attorney general, who sided with Mitchell.
The basis for the attorney general’s decision: Because the county had custody of the transcripts, they were public records.
Even before the attorney general’s opinion, Mainstream stopped giving the transcripts to the county.
“It was our understanding that from attending the hearing[s], the county didn’t want to take ownership of the transcripts,” said John Martin of Mainstream.
When the hearings are done, he said, the company would be willing to provide the transcripts.
Now the official record of the hearings is the minutes.
Before, the county took detailed minutes of Zoning Board of Appeals hearings, including those for wind farms. But with the latest hearings, the county decided to go with the far limited version.
Why the change?
Henkel said the county decided to go with Robert’s Rules of Order, which are the general rules of meeting procedures for many governing bodies. Those rules require that minutes include the basic actions of meetings.
The zoning board’s rules of procedure calls for the county to “summarize accurately the testimony of those appearing before the board or keep a verbatim transcript of all hearings.”
But the minutes don’t give details of the testimony – only the names of those who provide it.
Henkel said the county was previously doing the minutes incorrectly under the state Open Meetings Act.
But the Open Meetings Act includes no limitations on what governing bodies include in their minutes. It requires only that minutes give a summary of discussions on all matters proposed, deliberated or decided, and a record of votes taken.
‘Quite a circus’ dealing with
Craig Buhrow, the acting board’s chairman, said the county’s handling of the minutes has “gotten to be quite a confusing thing.”
“We deferred everything to Henry Dixon [state’s attorney]. It’s gotten to be quite a circus of figuring out what’s to be done,” Buhrow said. “We did have more complete minutes before. We were going above and beyond.”
Jim Timble, who attends zoning board hearings, said the zoning board decided to violate its own rules of procedure in scaling back its minutes.
“I am troubled by the fact you impeccably refer to the Zoning Board Rules of Procedure in attempting to defend your FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] denials,” he wrote in an Oct. 16 email to Dixon. “But, on the other hand, you conveniently advise ZBA members and the zoning administrator to ignore [Rules of Procedure] dictates. ...”
In the email, Timble said Dixon advised Henkel, the zoning officer, against accepting future transcripts after the attorney general ruled that the county must share such documents already in its custody.
Dixon didn’t return a message for comment. But Henkel said the county made no decision to stop accepting transcripts.
Other counties keep more
When Whiteside County held hearings on Mainstream’s proposal earlier this year, it posted the transcripts on the Internet as soon as it got them.
The county required Mainstream provide a court reporter so that the county wouldn’t have to undergo the expense of taking minutes.
“A court transcript is about as good as you can do,” said Stuart Richter, the county’s zoning administrator.
For other matters, Richter said, the county typically includes information about what is said during Planning and Zoning Commission meetings.
Ogle County has for years hired a court reporter to do transcripts for all of its hearings.
In Lee County, the zoning board will make a recommendation on the wind farm. The Lee County Board will have the final say; few County Board members have attended the hearings.