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  • Karrie E. Alms: Amazing insight into the world of politics awaits any reader at pibgorn … from a Demon’s...
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  • Of course the Chronicle is done: Without Sandberg to give stores to the Chronicle there is no Chronicle.

Circumventing the Open Meetings Act

By Invitation OnlyThe Open Meetings Act (OMA) is hard to follow. Even people like me who want to follow it conscientiously can sometimes find that we’ve inadvertently violated it. So, I just want to acknowledge up front that you really have to be on your toes when it comes to OMA.

It’s a different story, however, when officials set out specifically to circumvent the OMA. In today’s Word on the Street, intrepid reporter Jennifer Davis revealed this about efforts to get consensus on the “Knoxville corridor” controversy:

There was a special meeting with all the stakeholders this past week, which the city wanted to keep closed. That’s fine, because we’ve been promised there will be public hearings on this issue.

Still, to avoid triggering the Illinois Open Meetings Act, the city had to ensure a majority of a quorum from either the City Council or a city commission didn’t attend.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan states that, “[i]n its present form, the [Open Meetings] Act is designed to ensure that public business is conducted in public view, by prohibiting secret deliberations and actions on matters that should be discussed in a public forum.” If what Jennifer Davis described isn’t “secret deliberations,” then I don’t know what is. They wanted to deliberate (definition: “consider a question carefully”) the matter secretly, so they found a way to do so without “triggering the Open Meetings Act.”

Of course, the justification for this is that “there will be public hearings on this issue.” But that’s the point — the public hearings are where this matter should be deliberated. If it’s going to be hammered out in a back room among representatives from the council and commissions, doesn’t that abort the whole public hearing process? I mean, if a consensus was already reached by the members of the secret panel, then the public hearing becomes nothing more than a formality. The result of the hearings is predetermined.

But here’s the goofy part: We already had public hearings on this. They were the public hearings for the Land Development Code. This was all aired then. Remember the result? The Planning Commission (on which Maloof Realty employee Suzi Miller sits) and City staff recommended 150-foot setbacks, but the Zoning and Heart of Peoria commissions recommended 80-foot setbacks. Then it went to council.

Now the deliberation should take place in council chambers during one of their semimonthly meetings. They have all the information from both sides. If they have any questions, they can invite representatives to the council meeting to explain — where everyone can hear them and where they will be on the record. Why the need for these secret meetings and further public hearings?

13 comments to Circumventing the Open Meetings Act

  • BeanCounter

    I read this this morning and then thought of the news that you and Ms. Akeson won’t be part of the distribution of HOP memebers to committees and I just felt really sad for Peoria. So much potential, but those with power and influence want to be keep running business as usual, which more often than not means pushing people to other communities. The funniest-saddest part of the article was the comment that this is all over a potential Walgreens at Wilton Mortuary. I can’t pitcure where that is exactly but doesn’t it have to be pretty close to the Walgreens on Knoxville at McClure?

  • Hula Monkey

    I believe that Wilton’s is about 5 blocks away from the current Walgreens location.

  • Sud O. Nym

    CJ – While I agree in this case that it looks like folks went out of their way to circumvent the law, I’d be curious under what circumstances you’d accept city leaders (councilfolk, commissioners, staff, etc.) meeting privately to discuss details? I wonder how business would get done if the details of every decision had to be decided on the council floor? To take a different example, have you or any of the HOPC commissioners been meeting privately with councilpeople and staff to make your case/hammer out the details? If so, how is that different?

    You say: “If it’s going to be hammered out in a back room among representatives from the council and commissions, doesn’t that abort the whole public hearing process?” But the open meetings act prevents just that: No more than a majority of a quorum of final decision-makers (I think that means 3 councilfolk) can be in on the meeting. Hence, only 3 of 11 (or whatever) are “in” on the consensus. Not enough to pass anything. The real travesty is when multiple private meetings are held on the same subject: law followed, but a decision is really made.

  • Sud said: “I wonder how business would get done if the details of every decision had to be decided on the council floor?”

    I never said the details of every decision had to be decided on the council floor. I just said that deliberations should be public. Why couldn’t the meeting that they had been a public meeting? If it needed to be closed for a legitimate purpose, they could have invoked one of the exceptions in the Open Meetings Act and had it as a closed meeting. The fact that they had to circumvent the OMA tells me that there was no legitimate purpose for it to be closed. That’s a secret deliberation. If they needed to appoint an ad hoc committee to hammer out the details, they should have done so and published a notice of when and where it would be meeting and allow the public to observe.

    Sud said: “Hence, only 3 of 11 (or whatever) are ‘in’ on the consensus. Not enough to pass anything.”

    True. But, suppose those three votes were the deciding ones on an issue. Then the consensus that is reached in the secret meeting does effect the outcome in the public meeting. In this particular case, the Zoning Commission voted 4-2 in favor of 80-foot setbacks. The Planning Commission voted 5-1 in favor of 150-foot setbacks. Changing one vote on the ZC could make a big difference.

    Sud said: “have you … been meeting privately with councilpeople and staff to make your case…? If so, how is that different?”

    Good question. Obviously meeting with city staff is a non-issue because they don’t fall under OMA at all. Other than that, there legally is no difference. In either case, OMA — strictly speaking — considers neither scenario as a “meeting” that falls under the Act.

    My point is that the meeting in question here violates the spirit of the Act. I think a constituent or commissioner meeting with a council member to talk about public business or advocate for a particular position is fundamentally different in scope and intent than the mayor calling a meeting of the maximum number of individuals (short of a majority of a quorum of each body) from three commissions and the city council to deliberate on public business.

  • Eyebrows McGee

    “I wonder how business would get done if the details of every decision had to be decided on the council floor?”

    Openly and presumably within the bounds of the law. 🙂 Which is why so many people object to open meetings.

    Two thoughts I had reading your post: First, open meetings are crucial to democracy because they allow the whole “by the people” part of governance. Second, the Founding Fathers were all about SLOOOOOOOW government, because you can SAY the government is best which governs least, but the best way to force that to occur is to hogtie government so everything happens at the speed of glaciation. Ergo I don’t think, “It’s too slow” is a legitimate objection in and of itself; I need a reason slow is bad in any particular case.

    (That said, I don’t have a problem with reasonable limits to public comment — though I’m not really sure the current ones are reasonable — or with requiring citizens to file statements in writing.)

    Also, props for the pseudonym, although at first I thought you were from the car dealership.

  • Silly people. Democracy is just a formality, dontcha know.

  • Karrie E. Alms

    And just sometimes, there are multiple meetings of small groups to avoid OMA to set the stage behind the scenes for the public vote. Think building the school in the park, the COP does it on other issues, the PPD …. Not all commissioners are leaders, some are followers who may not be able/willing to do a lot research on an issue and are swayed by smoke and mirror information. Still other commissioners / city council members are absent from important votes —- so the variations on this theme are like a string of dominoes.

    It is the same backward scenario that Peoria has been hostage to for the past hundred years. Very sad and not progressive at all.

  • Sud O. Nym

    A few things:

    1. Thanks, Eyebrows, for complimenting my psuedonym. I confess, I’ve used a few on CJ’s site, but never nefariously (I usually just forget which I used previously and don’t post too frequently.)

    2. I happen to agree that in this case, it looks as though the city did violate the spirit of the law. I often wonder, however, if CJ and others like him would complain about similar deliberations that benefit his cause. I would guess that much of what is being discussed behind closed doors about the future of the HOP Commission — the compromise that CJ mentioned in an earlier post — isn’t of a similar vein (not exact, mind you, just similar).

    3. Jenny Davis characterized this as a meeting of key stakeholders to hash things out. My guess is these things happen all the time, and should. City leaders should have the right to meet with stakeholders as they see fit, within the bounds of the laws. To quote another recent Chronicle post, how do you think the TIF agreement with the school district happened? I don’t want to see the OMA abused, but there must be some sort of happy medium that allows business to continue.

    4. Karrie — I said exactly the same thing you did about having multiple meetings that eventually result in everyone having attended. That is the true abuse of the system.

    5. Finally, CJ said: “… suppose those three votes were the deciding ones on an issue. Then the consensus that is reached in the secret meeting does effect the outcome in the public meeting. In this particular case, the Zoning Commission voted 4-2 in favor of 80-foot setbacks. The Planning Commission voted 5-1 in favor of 150-foot setbacks. Changing one vote on the ZC could make a big difference.” Who, exactly, was there? Was it a swing vote? Which councilpeople were there? Were they swing votes? Again, I’m not trying to defend the city’s actions here, just trying to find out how this particular situation is any more dangerous than lobbying one of the swing voters independently.

  • Man, this post is depressing me. It’s made me realize that the Open Meetings Act is essentially meaningless. All it really does is slow down behind the scenes deliberations – the key players just have to meet with one or two council members at a time instead of all at once. Result: no OMA violation, yet key decisions already decided behind closed doors.

    Ahhh, democracy.

  • Mahkno

    ‘Smokey backrooms’ are alive and well in this town and practiced all the way down to the neighborhood level. When the ‘rules’ get in the way, they just ignore the rules. Why is anyone surprised?

    When you look at the low turnout in elections and the low participation level of the public in general, well …

    People need to stand up and say NO or YES as the case may be and get involved, by pushing aside these ‘movers n shakers’. They only move n shake when you tune out.

  • What happens if the governing body goes online and discusses an issue, either by email or by a chat room that hey set up. Ithink the law does cover that and how do you police that type of communication?

  • Karrie E. Alms

    Sud writes:

    3. Jenny Davis characterized this as a meeting of key stakeholders to hash things out. My guess is these things happen all the time, and should. City leaders should have the right to meet with stakeholders as they see fit, within the bounds of the laws.

    and Mahkno writes:

    People need to stand up and say NO or YES as the case may be and get involved, by pushing aside these ‘movers n shakers’. They only move n shake when you tune out.

    That is exactly the problem — key stakeholders are actually everyone — because you are at the top of the socioeconomic foodchain — you are not more ‘key’ than those persons at the bottom of the foodchain.

    That is the repeatedly problem that we see in Peoria (and other dysfunctional cities) where the top down approach just does not work. We try it again and again and still retain the same insane output with an increase in the negative and destructive results to our city each year.

    There are many more persons at the middle and bottom of the foodchain than those persons at the top. Peoria will become great when we are united in purpose, know our duty and shape our destiny in a proactive and inclusive manner.

  • Precinct Committeeman — Good question. It’s a little nebulous. As I understand it, it’s okay for a commissioner to send something out to all commissioners as an FYI (e.g., “here’s an article that relates to our commission I think you’d all be interested in”). But you can’t actually deliberate a matter via e-mail. As far as policing it… I don’t know how that would happen unless it came to the attention of city staff and they put the kibosh on it.