ROCK FALLS – The Democratic majority of the Whiteside County Board met behind closed doors Wednesday night, which a state press association attorney says was a violation of the Open Meetings Act.
The meeting was not advertised, and the public was barred from attending. A reporter was warned the police would be called if he didn’t leave.
The Democrats called the meeting a caucus, which they said they hold every 2 years. The Republicans, they said, do the same.
They said that during the meeting, they planned to discuss their selection for next board chairman. Tony Arduini, D-Rock Falls, is stepping down as chairman after more than two decades in the post.
Don Craven, an attorney for the Illinois Press Association, said nothing in the Open Meetings Act allows a majority caucus to meet behind closed doors to discuss issues such as the chairmanship. He said it didn’t matter if some of the participants were elected to the County Board but had yet to take office.
He cited a 1980 Illinois Supreme Court opinion that sided with a state’s attorney who determined that nine members of a city council had violated the Open Meetings Act, which was meant to allow the public to watch their elected representatives conduct business.
The court found that the council violated the act, “despite designation of the meeting by members as a party caucus.”
County Board member Steve Wilkins, D-Morrison, said he believed Craven was wrong, saying the group wouldn’t take any action on county business.
With the Democrats in the majority, they can effectively choose the chairman.
“It’s just a recommendation on who wants to run. This is a legal caucus,” Wilkins said. “I’ve taken the open meetings test.”
He was referring to the state-required test for elected officials to show their understanding of the Open Meetings Act.
County Administrator Joel Horn, who didn’t attend, said the county’s position was that it wasn’t considered a County Board meeting.
He said County Board members could meet informally if they wanted. For instance, he said, they could all show up at a movie theater.
Board member Jim Duffy, D-Sterling, also said it was legal meeting as he was walking in.
Board members weren’t happy a reporter showed up.
“You’re a jackass,” Glenn Truesdell, D-Rock Falls, said when asked about the meeting’s legality.
At least 15 current and future members were in the meeting room, which was at the carpenters union building near Rock Falls City Hall.
One member suggested calling the police to remove the reporter.
“I’d be willing to throw his ass out,” Truesdell said.
The County Board meets Monday night to officially choose a chairman and vice chairman.
Both Arduini and Vice Chairman Bill McGinn of Sterling attended Wednesday’s meeting.