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Good news from DeKalb for Whiteside board?

State’s attorney there reverses opinion about closed meetings

Published: Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012 1:15 a.m. CDT

ROCK FALLS – The DeKalb County state’s attorney sided with his county board on Friday in an open meetings issue, saying its members could meet in separate political caucuses.

State’s Attorney Richard Schmack’s opinion could bolster the case of the Whiteside County Board, which has faced a similar controversy.

During a public meeting last week, the DeKalb County Board met in separate party caucuses to discuss the election of chairman and vice chairman, although Schmack had advised against doing so, saying it would violate the state Open Meetings Act.

He reversed himself in a letter released Friday.

In Whiteside County, the County Board’s majority Democrats met privately more than 2 weeks ago in a Rock Falls union hall to discuss the election of a board chairman. They warned a Sauk Valley Media reporter that they would call the police if he stayed. He left.

A day later, Sauk Valley Media filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s office, contending that a board majority couldn’t meet in a private, unannounced meeting to discuss public business.

Whiteside County officials, however, say the Democrats could hold a private caucus because the chairmanship is a party matter.

The attorney general is investigating.

In DeKalb County, Schmack cited a 1980 state Supreme Court ruling that the Urbana City Council’s Democratic majority violated the state Open Meetings Act when it discussed public business, including a zoning request, at a closed party caucus.

The ruling also stated that the state law doesn’t bar “truly political meetings at which party business is discussed.”

As such, Schmack defended the caucuses at the County Board meeting.

“The election of these officials is public business, but a decision regarding names to be placed in nomination seems to be political and partisan in nature,” the state’s attorney wrote.

Don Craven, an attorney with the Illinois Press Association, disagreed. He said the Open Meetings Act comtemplates that the selection of someone to fill a public office vacancy in the event of death or resignation may be discussed in closed session.

But he said the law doesn’t permit the board to meet in closed session to discuss organizational positions such as chairman and vice chairman.

“While I understand the political expediency of the caucuses huddling separately, in my opinion, I disagree with the conclusion that this was not a violation of the [Open Meetings Act],” Craven said in an email.

In his letter, Schmack said he expressed concern during the meeting because he wasn’t clear about the purpose of the recess. Some members, he said, made statements that led the state’s attorney to believe they may ultimately go elsewhere and meet secretly as a committee as a whole.

Whiteside County is expected to respond in the next few days to the attorney general in Sauk Valley Media’s complaint.

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