The Whiteside County Board’s Democratic majority clearly broke the law Wednesday when party members met in private at a Rock Falls union hall to discuss their choice for county board chairman.
That’s not just us saying it.
The Illinois Open Meetings Act states that when a majority of a quorum of a public body meets to discuss public business, that constitutes an official meeting. The public must be notified of such meetings as prescribed by law, and the meetings must be open to the public.
It doesn’t matter that no official action was taken during the meeting. The law defines a meeting as a gathering “for the purpose of discussing public business. ...” Citizens are supposed to have access to discussions that lead to a final decision, not just access to that final vote.
Experts agree that Whiteside County Board Democrats violated the law.
Maryam Judar is an attorney with the Citizens Advocacy Center of Elmhurst.
“Discussion of the chairman of the County Board is definitely public business. It’s unequivocal,” Judar said.
David Morrison is deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform of Chicago.
Morrison said he knew of no exemptions in state law that allowed majorities on county boards to conduct private meetings.
Don Craven is a Springfield attorney for the Illinois Press Association.
Craven said nothing in the Open Meetings Act allowed the Whiteside County Board Democrats to legally do what they did.
In fact, in a 1980 opinion, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that majority members of a city council could not meet in private to discuss public business, even if they called the meeting a caucus.
Caucus is the word used by Whiteside County Board Democrats to describe meetings like this, which they said they have held before and which they believe are perfectly legal. One member, Sarah McNeill, described it as a meeting of a political party committee, which is exempt from the Open Meetings Act.
According to Craven, that exemption applies to county political organizations, not the majority members of a public body such as the Whiteside County Board.
A Republican on the Whiteside County Board, Bud Thompson, came somewhat to the Democrats’ defense. Noting that party caucuses in the Illinois General Assembly meet in private, Thompson asked, “So why not county boards?”
The Illinois General Assembly made itself exempt from the Illinois Open Meetings Act, so its members can hold all the private caucuses they want.
While the Legislature’s decision to exempt itself reeks with hypocrisy, two wrongs don’t make a right. Members of county boards must obey the act.
We are troubled by Democratic Whiteside County Board member Glenn Truesdell’s defiant response when asked by a Sauk Valley Media reporter about the legality of Wednesday’s meeting.
“You’re a jackass,” Truesdell said.
Truesdell and Whiteside County Board Democrats should consider the fact that violating the Open Meetings Act is a Class C misdemeanor. People found guilty of Class C misdemeanors are subject to a maximum of 30 days in jail and up to $1,500 in fines.
Sauk Valley Media has filed a complaint about the meeting’s legality with the Illinois Attorney General’s office. We await a response.