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State’s attorney: Closed meeting was legal

16 Democratic members of county board were present

MORRISON – Whiteside County State’s Attorney Trish Joyce is defending a private meeting of the County Board’s Democratic majority, a session that some consider a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

The legality of that meeting is being investigated by the Illinois attorney general based on a complaint from Sauk Valley Media, which was denied access to the meeting. The attorney general will issue a ruling after reviewing the case.

On Nov. 28, 16 County Board members met behind closed doors in an unannounced meeting at a Rock Falls union hall. They said they planned to discuss the selection of the chairman and vice chairman of the 27-member County Board.

The state’s Open Meetings Act bars the majority of a quorum of a public body from meeting to discuss public business outside of an advertised meeting. For the County Board, that threshold is eight members.

At the meeting, a Sauk Valley Media reporter was warned that the police would be called if he did not leave. Sauk Valley Media later asked for a review by the attorney general, which decided to investigate.

In her response to the attorney general, Joyce, who took office Dec. 1, said board members did not break the law because they were actually attending a Democratic Central Committee meeting.

She suggested the meeting of the county board members was actually a “political meeting,” and their discussion about choosing a board chairman and vice chairman was “party business.”

She enclosed a copy of an attorney general’s opinion that found that a county party central committee is not subject to the Open Meetings Act. She also cited a 1980 Illinois Supreme Court opinion that found that “a true political caucus is beyond the purview” of the open meetings law.

Joyce’s response included affidavits from County Board Chairman Jim Duffy, D-Sterling, and member Steve Wilkins, D-Morrison, who heads the party’s central committee. Both men attended the private meeting.

The wording of their separate affidavits, notarized by an employee of the state’s attorney’s office, was nearly identical.

“Such meetings have been routinely called by the Democratic Party in order to determine whom the party wishes to support as its candidates for various offices. That was the intent of this meeting,” both affidavits said. “Those persons in attendance who also happened to be county board members were there in their capacities as members of the Democratic Central Committee or interested party members and not in their capacities as board members.”

The affidavits said the committee sought the names of interested candidates for board chairman and vice chairman. The committee determined who it would support, the affidavits said.

When the County Board met the next week, the elections of Duffy as chairman and Tony Arduini, D-Rock Falls, went smoothly. No one else was nominated, and the votes were unanimous.

Afterward, board members declined to provide details about what happened during the private meeting.

Don Craven, attorney for the Illinois Press Association, said he believed the meeting was illegal.

The Open Meetings Act was intended to allow the public to watch government in action so citizens could hold their elected officials accountable.

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