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Often, minutes remain closed

Many agencies neglect reviews required by state of closed-session records

Published: Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

DIXON – The Dixon City Council last month did something that’s uncommon in government: It released the minutes from six of its closed sessions.

At the same time, it decided to keep the minutes from 16 other closed meetings secret because of pending litigation and personnel matters. 

Some of those meetings could include discussions about Rita Crundwell, the former comptroller who made off with nearly $54 million over nearly two decades. One such closed session was held the night she was arrested – April 17, 2012. 

The Open Meetings Act requires public bodies to review minutes of executive sessions twice a year to determine whether the need for secrecy still exists. Or they can release the minutes if they no longer see the need for confidentiality.

Dixon’s city attorney, Rob LeSage, acknowledged the city hadn’t been reviewing its closed-session minutes until recently.

But the city has plenty of company. Sterling admits it’s behind with its required reviews.

“The good thing is we only have a couple of closed sessions a year anyway,” City Clerk Marie Rombouts said. “We don’t have that many.”

Lee County, which holds a few closed meetings each year, also hasn’t had such reviews. 

A few weeks ago, the Rock Falls City Council held a review and decided to keep all of its closed-session minutes secret.

Other governing bodies do open their minutes. Whiteside County recently released the closed-session minutes for three of its Public Works Committee meetings as part of its semiannual review, County Administrator Joel Horn said.

In 2011, Morrison City Council released some of its minutes, including discussions about hiring Jim Wise as city administrator. He held that job for 2 years.

Perhaps the most interesting of Dixon’s closed-session minutes was on Feb. 4, 2013, when the council discussed the job description for Shawn Ortgiesen, the public works director and city engineer who often was considered the de facto city manager. Just 2 months later, Ortgiesen resigned after officials discovered he had used his city-issued credit card for personal expenses.

During the closed session, Commissioner Dennis Considine said Ortgiesen’s job description should be reviewed and refined. Commissioner David Blackburn agreed.

“Mayor [Jim] Burke showed concern because of just appointing a Governmental Task Force to review all types of governments and the City of Dixon is going to possibly change Shawn’s job description,” the minutes state.

Lawyer: Apparent violations of law

Don Craven, an attorney for the Illinois Press Association, said some of the discussions mentioned in the closed-session minutes are not allowed under the Open Meetings Act.

In one case, Ortgiesen introduced the idea of hiring an information technology employee rather than contracting out for such services – a discussion that appeared to violate the law.

City Attorney Rob LeSage said the minutes on the IT situation don’t reflect the entire discussion.

“My recollection of the conversation was about hiring a specific person,” he said. “The conversation turned to the fact that the person wasn’t going to work.”

According to the minutes, members agreed to authorize advertising an IT position at their open meeting later that month.

That is a budgetary issue, Craven said, and shouldn’t have been discussed behind closed doors.

In a Feb. 19 closed meeting, Finance Director Paula Meyer distributed salary sheets showing what nonunion personnel receive as additional benefits, such as sick bonuses, degree bonuses, holiday pay, vacation pay and clothing allowances. She said she would like to see those amounts rolled into each person’s salary.

“Discussion ensued regarding the impact on pensions and the disparity of some nonunion employees receiving additional benefits while others do not,” the minutes state.

According to the minutes, LeSage said the city could change its personnel policy to include the sick bonus so other nonunion employees received the benefit.

While the council can discuss issues related to specific employees behind closed doors, Craven said, it’s not allowed to discuss general personnel policies in secrecy.

No exception for ‘uncomfortable’ topics

Last year, the attorney general issued a binding opinion that Swansea, a St. Louis suburb, violated the Open Meetings Act when it privately discussed layoffs during budget talks.

The law bars a public body from secretly talking about which employees may lose their jobs because of budgetary reasons, the attorney general said.

Craven, who specializes in open-government law, said his office gets a lot of calls along the lines of the Swansea issue.

“There is not an exemption in the Open Meetings Act for things that are uncomfortable,” Craven said.

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