ROCK FALLS – The Whiteside County Board’s Democratic majority recently held a private, unannounced meeting that watchdog groups called illegal.
Officials, including the county administrator, say the board broke no law. And the former state’s attorney apparently advised members it was fine.
Last week, a somewhat similar situation happened in DeKalb County, but in that case, the state’s attorney warned his county board not to separate into party caucuses, saying it would violate the law.
Members disregarded his advice.
Two weeks ago, the Whiteside County Board’s Democrats met in a Rock Falls union hall, warning a reporter that they would call the police if he stayed. One member called the reporter a “jackass” and threatened to throw his “ass out.”
They met to discuss the selection of a chairman.
At the DeKalb County Board’s Dec. 3 meeting, members voted to “stand at ease” before leaving their seats and congregating with each other where the discussions were no longer part of the public record or being recorded by microphones.
Election of the board chairman was listed on the County Board’s public agenda.
At the meeting, a pre-arranged agreement fell apart during public discussion, so members suggested going into recess and heading into separate meeting rooms, according to a story in DeKalb’s Daily Chronicle.
One member suggested Democrats go in one room and Republicans in another.
DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack, however, warned the board that such a move would violate the state Open Meetings Act, which requires governing bodies to conduct their business in public.
They divided into separate groups anyway.
Schmack said the “events are under review.”
Don Craven, an attorney with the Illinois Press Association, said the meeting break sounded illegal.
“I see a major problem with that scenario,” he said.
He also contends the meeting of the Whiteside County Board’s Democratic majority was illegal.
Also recently, the Champaign County Board divided into Democratic and Republican caucuses during a meeting to discuss the election of a chairman, but no one has publicly questioned that decision.
A day after the Whiteside County meeting, Sauk Valley Media filed a complaint with the state attorney general, contending the majority violated the Open Meetings Act.
In a Dec. 6 letter to county officials, the attorney general’s office said it would investigate. It said it would give the county seven business days to respond. That period ends next week.
The Whiteside County meeting was held Dec. 28, just days before the end of State’s Attorney Gary Spencer’s more than 30 years in office.
Members said Spencer, a Republican, advised that meetings of the Democratic majority were legal. He didn’t return a message for comment.
Democrat Trish Joyce, the new state’s attorney, hasn’t come out with a position on the meeting.
On Wednesday, Whiteside County Board Chairman Jim Duffy, D-Sterling, declined to discuss how the county was handling the complaint.
The County Board’s Democrats have refused to give details about what happened during the private meeting. However, at a public meeting the following week, Duffy was unanimously elected. He immediately passed out a handout with committee assignments.
Officials from Lee and Ogle counties say they don’t hold party caucuses of board members.