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Larry Lough

Congrats on the election; we should talk ...

Congratulations to all the winning candidates in the Nov. 6 election.

Now the hard work begins.

Like doing anything else, being a public official is easy – unless you want to do a good job.

You were elected to serve different kinds of people: those who supported you, those who opposed you, and those who were not inspired enough to even cast a ballot.

Oh, and then there is the press.

Good luck with all of that.

YOU ARE PROBABLY getting a lot of information – and advice – about public service.

Let us add a suggestion: Get a good understanding of your obligations – and the public’s rights – under the state’s public access laws, which are the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act.

If you are a member of a public body – such as a county board – the law requires that you complete an “electronic training curriculum” on the Open Meetings Act.

New board members have 90 days to do that through the website of the Illinois Attorney General.

But the clock is ticking louder for those who have been members of a public body since the first of this year. They had a year to complete that training, so their deadline is just a few weeks away.

It became painfully obvious recently that some Whiteside County Board members had not taken the training – or had forgotten some of what they learned.

It’s a good idea to take notes.

OUR READERS KNOW that this newspaper monitors public officials’ compliance with public access laws.

We believe that is an important part of our job – and of our commitment to community advocacy.

It’s not for nothing that Sauk Valley Media has won 12 awards for Best Promotion of the Public’s Right to Know during the past 5 years in statewide competition sponsored by the Illinois Press Association.

And that is what public access laws are about: the public’s right to know what is going on in government.

The sad truth is, we would not have won even one award if public officials in the Sauk Valley had complied 100 percent with the state’s public access laws.

Another sad truth is, public bodies have sometimes violated the law by following the advice of their attorneys.

So, we suggest you complete that online training sooner rather than later.

And take really good notes.

IN JUST THE FIRST eight slides of that training document, you learn everything you need to know to avoid an illegal meeting like the one apparently conducted last week by the Democratic members of the Whiteside County Board.

Specifically, you find out that:

1. The intent of the Open Meetings Act is “to ensure that the actions of public bodies are taken openly and that their deliberations are conducted openly.” That means the public is allowed to observe not just a final vote, but also the discussions that lead to it.

2. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the law “is applicable to a ‘political caucus’” of a public body. That means such a caucus is not exempt from complying with the provisions for public notice and openness of meetings.

3. The definition of a meeting includes a gathering of “a majority of a quorum of current members of a public body with newly elected board members who have not yet taken office to discuss future appointments of officials” – including a chairman.

4. If the stated intent of the law isn’t clear enough, an official meeting is defined to include a gathering “for the purpose of discussing public business.” So you cannot defend a closed meeting just because no vote was taken.

All of that is in the first eight slides of the training.

Maybe nobody took notes.

THIS EDITOR ISN’T surprised that the recently departed state’s attorneys in Lee and Whiteside county had given their county boards bad advice regarding public meetings and records.

Lawyers for public bodies are notorious for being unfamiliar with public access laws. They tend to focus on contracts, zoning laws, and other legal matters.

And sometimes they just defend the indefensible, hoping no one will challenge them.

Of course, state’s attorneys are in a difficult position: They are supposed to provide legal counsel to the county board, including advice on the Open Meetings Act, but they also are responsible for enforcing that law, violations of which are Class C misdemeanors that are punishable by a fine of up to $1,500 and imprisonment for up to 30 days.

So, you would think their advice would be well researched before it’s offered.

You would think.

NEWSPAPERS ARE ON the front lines of making sure that public officials comply with public access laws.

So, we learn a lot about how they work. We offer these basic truths about those laws.

1. The state’s Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act are public access laws, not press access laws. Members of the public have the same basic rights of access as do journalists.

2. Public access laws establish a bare minimum standard for performance by public officials. They have to provide 24 hours’ notice of special meetings, but they can give a week’s notice or more. They must respond within 5 business days to a written request for a public record, but they can hand it over immediately when someone asks for it – and they usually should.

3. Use of public access laws should be a last resort for journalists. We encourage respectful, professional relationships with government officials that should usually ensure easy access to government meetings and records – without the formality of filing requests in writing. But we’re happy to do that if a public official insists.

4. A good working knowledge of public access laws gives journalists the confidence to challenge violators of the law. And it provides members of a public body with the confidence to challenge bad advice.

5. A good working knowledge of public access laws provides journalists with the knowledge to inform others about the law.

We believe in public service, too.

WHAT ELSE CAN YOU learn from the attorney general’s online training for the Open Meetings Act?

Among other things, you learn about parts of the law that have been at issue recently in the Sauk Valley.

For one, a public body is required to keep meeting minutes – “a summary of discussion on all matters proposed, deliberated, or decided, and a record of any votes taken.”

And that “summary of discussion” in the minutes “must include sufficient data so that either the public body or a court examining its minutes will be able to ascertain what, in fact, was discussed, the substance of that discussion, and what, if any, action was taken.”

You also can learn that “a public body can discuss an item that does not appear on the agenda, but it cannot vote or take action on something that is not specifically referenced in the agenda.”

And you learn that if a court finds your argument “substantially prevails” in a legal challenge under the state’s public access laws, your attorney’s fees and costs incurred may be assessed against “any party” in your complaint – except a state’s attorney.

Hey, the buck has to stop somewhere.

Congrats on the election; we should talk ... shaw-push-component-1