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‘Whiteside 16’ taught lesson; compliance left up to voters

Sixteen Whiteside County Board members broke the Illinois Open Meetings Act last year, as determined by a Public Access Bureau attorney. Whiteside voters must ensure that County Board members learned their lesson.

The Illinois Attorney General’s Office got it right last week when a Public Access Bureau lawyer determined that 16 Whiteside County Board members broke a state law last year.

In what way did those board members, all Democrats, run afoul of the law?

The Whiteside 16, as we’ll choose to call them, decided to meet behind closed doors to discuss who they would support for County Board chairman and vice chairman.

Their meeting, held for discussion purposes, broke the Illinois Open Meetings Act, which clearly states that not only must votes on public business take place at an open, public meeting, but also that discussions regarding public business must take place at an open, public meeting.

The law is clear that a majority of a quorum may not meet to discuss public business in secret. In this case, a quorum consists of 14 members of the 27-member board. A majority of a quorum would be eight or more, which was far exceeded by the Whiteside 16.

The Whiteside 16’s secret meeting took place Nov. 28 in a union hall in Rock Falls. It preceded the Whiteside County Board’s Dec. 3 meeting, on whose agenda was an item regarding the selection of a chairman and vice chairman – clearly an act of public business. That’s why Sauk Valley Media brought the matter to the Public Access Bureau’s attention.

Representatives of the Whiteside 16, including State’s Attorney Trish Joyce, defended their action by describing the meeting as a political caucus that did not qualify for regulation under the Open Meetings Act.

Citing chapter and verse of state law, previous court rulings, and a previous attorney general’s opinion, Tola Sobitan, assistant attorney general for the Public Access Bureau, set the Whiteside 16 straight.

Sobitan’s five-page determination found that the Whiteside 16 violated the Open Meetings Act by meeting in secret to discuss and agree upon which candidates to support for County Board chairman (Jim Duffy) and vice chairman (Tony Arduini). Duffy and Arduini were subsequently elected.

Sobitan wrote: “There is, however, no effective remedial action that the County Board can take at this time to redress the violation. Nonetheless, we caution members of the County Board to ensure that all discussions of the County Board’s business are held in strict compliance with the requirements of OMA [Open Meetings Act], and we emphasize that discussing public business within the context of a political caucus does not insulate Board members from the requirements of that Act.”

We note that Sobitan’s determination was not made in haste. She took more than 8 months to research the law and pertinent rulings, weigh the evidence, and write her determination, with which we heartily agree.

While Sobitan noted that “no effective remedial action” exists for the board to take, members – particularly the Whiteside 16 – should be put on notice that they must scrupulously adhere to the Open Meetings Act.

After all, violating the Open Meetings Act is a Class C misdemeanor, which is punishable by a maximum jail term of 30 days and up to $1,500 in fines.

Although the Whiteside 16 will not face prosecution, some of them will be up for election in 2014.

That’s where voters can provide their own “remedial action” by asking pertinent questions of Democratic incumbents, such as:

Were you one of the Whiteside 16?

If so, do you apologize for participating in and condoning an illegal meeting?

Do you promise to always obey the Illinois Open Meetings Act if re-elected?

Unsatisfactory responses should lead voters to reject unrepentant board members who believe party politics are more important than the public’s right to know.

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