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AG looking into panel’s secret meeting

Created: Friday, December 7, 2012 1:15 a.m. CDT
Updated: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 1:20 p.m. CDT

MORRISON – The state attorney general’s office will investigate a complaint, filed by Sauk Valley Media, that the Whiteside County Board violated state law by holding a private meeting.

Thursday, the attorney general informed county officials that “further inquiry is warranted” into the meeting that the board’s Democratic majority held Nov. 28. Members said they planned to discuss the selection of a new County Board chairman.

The Democrats held the meeting at the carpenters union hall in Rock Falls. An SVM reporter was warned that the police would be called if he didn’t leave. One member called the reporter a name and said he would be willing to throw the reporter’s “ass out.”

In a letter to county officials, Assistant Attorney General Tola Sobitan asked the board to specify how many current board members were present at the meeting and give a summary of the discussions that took place.

Before being ordered to leave, the reporter counted 15 people in the union hall, although it couldn’t be immediately determined whether all were board members.

The attorney general is requiring the county to respond to the letter within 7 business days of its receipt.

Often, state’s attorneys are the ones who handle Open Meetings Act complaints against county boards.

State’s Attorney Trish Joyce, who took office days after the private meeting, said she didn’t have enough information to comment on it.

Former State’s Attorney Gary Spencer advised that such private meetings were legal, board members said. Spencer didn’t return a message for comment.

The private meeting happened just days before the members’ new terms began. Then-board Chairman Tony Arduini, D-Rock Falls, and then-Vice Chairman Bill McGinn, D-Sterling, attended.

On Monday, the board unanimously elected Jim Duffy, D-Sterling, as the new chairman. Arduini, who wanted to step down as the chairman, became the new vice chairman.

Members said they made no decisions in the private, unannounced meeting. They contended state law allows such meetings, citing an attorney general’s opinion saying that party committees were not subject to the Open Meetings Act.

However, watchdog groups argue the opinion applies to actual party organizations, not governing bodies. They say the law bars a majority from secretly discussing public business.

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

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