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Lee County’s bizarre journey to openness

The transcripts from Lee County’s wind farm hearings are now online. That shouldn’t be a big deal, but it is.

For months, the county bizarrely fought against the public’s right to have access to that information. All 28 Lee County Board members stayed publicly quiet as this happened.

The transcripts were done by a court reporter hired by Mainstream Renewable Power, the company proposing 53 wind turbines in southwestern Lee County.

The proposed wind farm is controversial. Many neighboring residents don’t want it, fearing their property values will decline, among other concerns. They want all the information they can about the project.

Interestingly, the company never had a problem giving the transcripts to the county. Why would it? After all, the Ireland-based company wants the county to approve the turbines. Keeping the transcripts under wraps had the potential of irking the Lee County Zoning Board of Appeals, which will make a recommendation to the County Board on the wind farm.

After the hearings started in July, Mainstream would give the transcripts to the county. But when Lee County resident Frances Mitchell asked to see them, then-Lee County State’s Attorney Henry Dixon refused her request, saying she would have to pay the court reporter for the transcripts, which would have cost more than $1,000.

Mitchell, an attorney, appealed the issue to the attorney general’s office, which found that the county should disclose the transcripts if they were in its custody. They were, so the county released them.

Then the county, by Mainstream’s account, asked the company not to give any more transcripts. Why? Was it to save face? Was it because Dixon didn’t like Mitchell, with whom he had sparred before?

We never got the answer. Probably because officials didn’t have a good one to give.

In November, local attorney Anna Sacco-Miller, who argued against Dixon’s record opposing government openness, trounced him in the election. After taking office in December, she arranged for the transcripts to go online.

Again, the public should know that the County Board stood silently by while the former state’s attorney played games with the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Nearly every board member supports open government in theory, but when the state’s attorney is clearly on the wrong side of the law, the members appear to lose the strength of their convictions.

Superintendent: No discipline for free speech

Do teachers have a right to speak with school board members?

By one account, they are banned from doing so in the Dixon schools.

“Board policy states teachers cannot contact board members without proper authorization or will be written up as a disciplinary action,” former Dixon board member Carolyn Brechon said in a guest column last week.

I checked the school board’s policies.

The “chain of command” policy mandates that all personnel refer matters requiring administrative action to the “responsible administrator” and may appeal a decision to a higher administrative officer.

Under the policy, the superintendent shall communicate the channels of authority and reporting relationships for school employees.

“These channels should be followed, and no level should be bypassed except in unusual situations,” it states.

The Rock Falls High School board has the same policy.

The Sterling school board has a more expansive policy. It says employees, parents and residents should submit questions or communications for the board through the superintendent.

“The superintendent shall provide the board with a summary of these questions or communications and provide, as appropriate, his or her feedback regarding the matter,” the policy says. “If contacted individually, board members will refer the person to the appropriate level of authority, except in unusual situations.”

Dixon Superintendent Michael Juenger told me that the district has had situations where employees bypass administrators and go directly to school board members with their issues. He said he has sent letters to those employees reminding them of the policy.

He said employees unhappy with the resolution of an issue can go up the chain of command. But they should start with their immediate supervisors.

“We don’t discipline people for their freedom of speech,” he said.

Sterling’s policy seems designed for parents upset with their children’s specific situations. Following the chain of command in such cases makes sense. After all, individual board members have no power whatsoever. They only have authority together.

Sterling’s policy, however, asks that all concerns go through the superintendent. Is that really what the school board wants? Certainly, residents should feel free to call board members about general issues such as school spending and taxes. After all, the members are our elected representatives.

David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525. 

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