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Larry Lough

Sauk Valley forecast: More sunshine ahead

“Sunshine laws” require government to be open to its citizens.

Those public access laws are designed to let the “sunshine” in – to ensure that people can attend government meetings and inspect government documents.

The best disinfectant for government corruption? Sunshine.

As a result of this year’s election, sunshine should be more plentiful in the Sauk Valley.

And government should be a little more accessible to the public.

WE TRULY BELIEVE that Whiteside County State’s Attorney Gary Spencer, Lee County State’s Attorney Henry Dixon, and Lee County Board Chairman Jim Seeberg are good people.

They all have done good work in largely thankless jobs in local government.

But they have not been advocates of government transparency, and have not followed public-friendly policies in their official roles.

Spencer and Seeberg chose not to seek re-election, and Dixon lost decisively in his re-election attempt. If they haven’t left office already, they will soon.

We wish them well in retirement.

We thank them for their many years of service in the sometimes harsh spotlight that comes with holding public office.

And we look forward to working with their successors to ensure sunshine brightens the halls of local government.

WHILE WE ARE BEING brutally honest, let us say that this newspaper bears some responsibility for a “darkness” in local government over the years.

Reporters and editors didn’t always ask the tough questions, seldom challenged the elusive answers, and too often accepted “no” as an appropriate response to requests for openness.

And local officials became comfortable with doing things their way, regardless of their responsibilities – and the public’s rights – under the state’s public access laws.

The newspaper’s approach changed a few years ago with the arrival of editors and reporters who took seriously their role in government transparency.

The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists says that people in our business should “Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.”

Those of us who now write for and edit this newspaper accept that obligation as part of our community advocacy.

We just cannot accept the answer, “That’s how it’s always been done.”

Even if a previously passive approach to reporting on local public affairs helped to create that mindset.

“THAT’S THE WAY it’s been done since 1984,” Seeberg protested in the spring of 2011. “They did it that way before that. You don’t put every issue on the agenda.”

At issue was the board’s practice of preparing its monthly agenda without listing all matters that were scheduled for a vote.

When a reporter for this newspaper informed Seeberg that the practice was illegal under the state’s Open Meetings Act, the chairman was unmoved.

So was his chief enabler, County Attorney Dixon, who concocted a bizarre defense for ignoring case law in the matter: People who wanted that information had a “responsibility” to track it down by reviewing the minutes of the board’s committee meetings.

This newspaper asked the state’s attorney general to review the board’s practice, and the AG found it to be illegal.

When Seeberg was finally forced to call for a revote on a matter the board had passed even though it was not on the agenda, he told the board, “Our wonderful reporter decided we didn’t do it right.”

Seeberg never understood it was a matter of laws, not of men.

He never did get it.

THAT FINDING BY the AG’s office was the second time that month it had determined a County Board action to be illegal.

The other matter involved a complaint by Bob Logan, village president of Franklin Grove, who had objected after a board committee would not allow public comments at hearings conducted on wind energy.

Dixon had defended that practice, too, through a Byzantine explanation about different rules applying to a series of meetings. The attorney general didn’t buy it.

To his credit, Dixon did wave off Seeberg when the chairman wanted to prosecute a citizen for making an audio recording of a board meeting.

The Open Meetings Act specifically says, “... any person may record the proceedings at meetings required to be open by this Act by tape, film or other means.”

Why that came as a surprise to Seeberg is anyone’s guess. He had been a board member for more than 25 years, but apparently had never understood the board’s obligations to the public under state law.

No, he never did get it.

AT SOME POINT IN the past few years, Seeberg and Dixon stopped talking to this newspaper’s county government reporter, David Giuliani.

That was their right; nothing in the law says a public official has to answer a reporter’s questions.

Maybe they didn’t like the reporter’s questions. Maybe they didn’t like his writing style. Maybe they didn’t like that his reporting had so often embarrassed them for flouting the law.

During Seeberg’s final County Board meeting this week, members were given the chance to comment on the chairman’s service.

Although several board members had clashed with Seeberg over the years, all comments were positive – if sometimes restrained. It was not a time to try to settle old scores.

Except for Seeberg. He embarrassed himself one last time as board chairman by directing his comments solely at reporter Giuliani.

The reporter “twists” what people say, said Seeberg, who explained he was being discreet by not “cussing” at the reporter.

No, he never did get it.

Never will.

STATE’S ATTORNEY Spencer is a different matter.

As best we can tell after having observed the criminal justice system from the newsroom for four decades, Spencer knows what he’s doing. He just doesn’t want anybody else to know.

And he doesn’t make it easy to ask. After this newspaper started asking more questions a few years ago, Spencer decided he would communicate by email only.

This is a different issue from the childish games that Seeberg and Dixon have played in Lee County – although it involves the same mix of ego, stubbornness, and “we’ll do it my way” attitude.

With Spencer, the question is, To what extent does an elected official have an ethical duty to explain himself to the public?

The prime example is Spencer’s handling of criminal cases against Nicholas Sheley – before the slaughter of eight victims in the summer of 2008.

Some people believe that vigorous prosecution of Sheley for serious crimes before 2008 would have put him in prison, where innocent people could not have become victims of a spree killing in those few bloody days of late June.

We will never know.

AS FOR EXPLAINING how the state’s attorney prosecuted Sheley’s multiple offenses before the killings, Spencer has repeatedly declined to talk.

He explained he was prevented, by court rules, from discussing the prior crimes because of the pending murder charges against Sheley. Any comments could jeopardize the defendant’s right to a fair trial, Spencer said.

Colleagues described Spencer’s denial as principled reasoning. But it turned out to be only a convenient excuse.

Later, during a meeting of a County Board committee, Spencer referred to Sheley as a “poster boy for the death penalty.” So much for concern about prejudicial statements.
Spencer never felt obligated to explain that contradiction.

NOR DID HE EVER publicly explain why he never filed criminal charges against a Whiteside County jailer who admitted stealing the prescription drugs of inmates.

Spencer’s explanation at the time was that he couldn’t discuss the case because “the allegedly criminal conduct remains within the statute of limitations period.”

When that period ended last February, after no charges had been filed, Spencer was silent.

And the circumstances cried for an answer: The jailer was the son of a former state policeman; state police had conducted the investigation of the thefts, at the request of the sheriff; and Spencer, himself a former deputy sheriff, had hinted that state police botched the investigation while interviewing the suspect.

In fact, this newspaper had to get the state attorney general to overrule Spencer’s decision that had denied us records of the drug thefts.

Does the public not deserve an official explanation about that investigation and the lack of prosecution?

An email would be fine.

PROSECUTOR DIXON is fond of saying reporter Giuliani “makes the news” instead of reporting it.

Seeberg picked up that refrain, as did some other public officials.

Presumably, they believe reporters should keep their mouths shut and write only what public officials tell them. When it comes to illegal or improper behavior by those officials ... well, reporters ought to mind their own business.

But that’s not how it works. Not anymore.

We agree with the SPJ code, about how journalists should “ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open. ...”

We think that’s what the public wants, too.

Sauk Valley forecast: More sunshine ahead shaw-push-component-1