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Journey toward openness

The Dixon City Council might establish work sessions where discussions on public business will be conducted in an open fashion. Adopting greater openness in its deliberations is the right way to go.

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The Rita Crundwell scandal that erupted in April 2012 sent Dixon’s former comptroller on a long journey from being a wealthy, respected member of the community to being an inmate in a federal prison barracks in Minnesota.

The scandal sent the Dixon City Council on a long journey, too – from a group of elected officials who unknowingly allowed secret thefts of taxpayer dollars on a multimillion-dollar scale, to a group of elected officials who seem to be trying to make things right.

To be sure, there have been bumps along the road – the Shawn Ortgiesen credit card scandal 2 months ago being the most jarring.

But since April 2012, decisions by Mayor Jim Burke and the four commissioners have generally brought improvements and greater professionalism to city government operations, and that is commendable.

One of those decisions was to appoint Police Chief Danny Langloss as a special assistant to the City Council. Among his recommendations, Langloss has suggested that council members adopt a new and better way of communicating among themselves: Do it openly.

Langloss has advised the council to begin scheduling work sessions as needed, for discussion purposes only, prior to regular City Council meetings.

Because they would involve a majority of a quorum of the council, the meetings would, by law, have to be open to the public.

Project presentations and in-depth discussions could take place at the work sessions. Afterward, the council could convene its regular meeting.

Langloss said another city with a commission form of government, East Peoria, does this, and it works well.

The work sessions would serve several purposes.

Council members could more easily be briefed on upcoming issues in one sitting, rather than the current process that involves several private get-togethers to avoid violating the letter of the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

The public could more easily learn about upcoming issues, and what council members think about them, which would adhere to the spirit of the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

The Open Meetings Act requires that not only action take place in public, but that most discussions take place in public.

The first sentence in Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s “Guide to the Illinois Open Meetings Act” states, “The Illinois Open Meetings Act is designed to prohibit secret deliberations and action on matters which, due to their potential impact on the public, properly should be discussed in a public forum.”

Earlier this year, Dixon residents who attend council meetings noticed several occasions when council members voted on issues without having any public discussion whatsoever. People are absolutely correct to raise questions about that practice. By having their discussions outside the public’s earshot, council members certainly were not living up to the spirit of the law while contributing to public mistrust of government.

While a public work session is one way to bring council deliberations out into the open, another way exists: Simply have the discussions during regular council meetings.

Such expanded council meetings might have to be convened earlier than usual, in order to accommodate the additional discussion. But such a time frame likely would be more convenient for the public.

As an Appellate Court stated in 1975, “[T]he clear intention of the Legislature expressed in the [Open Meetings] Act favors, of course, open deliberation as well as open action.”

In their post-Crundwell journey, Dixon City Council members will not go wrong if they continue walking toward the light of transparency and openness. Embracing open discussions and deliberations at public meetings would be another important step on that journey.

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