Caledonia rejects proposed candidate forum

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11751124167066.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘Caledonia Village Board members denied a request to call a special meeting for a Meet the Candidates forum.‘);

Caledonia Village Board voted unanimously March 20 to reject a special meeting proposed by former board member Lisa Rodgers, who hoped to host a “Meet the Candidates” forum prior to the April 17 elections.

Rodgers said, following the Board’s March 20 vote: “It is a gross disservice to the community. The fact is that these forums are occurring all over in other communities, and yet we cannot have one because the Board is ignoring the legal opinion of the Attorney General.”

Rodgers said she requested the special meeting based on the advice of Scott Sievers from the Illinois Attorney General’s office because of concerns about the Open Meetings Act. Rodgers had requested to conduct the forum in the same fire station the Board holds its meetings in.

Caledonia Village President Susan Siek said: “The village does pay the fire station for the use of this fire station. And yet, the group led by Lisa Rodgers wishes to have it here. That’s a conflict right there, because the village pays for the use of this for any of our meetings…. The Village Board cannot spend any money on anything political.”

The forum was to be moderated by event organizers, posing questions from the community to the candidates.

“This board has not, nor do I think it should, set a precedence here for calling a special meeting at the request of anyone who is not a board member or a consultant of the board,” Siek said. “If a special meeting were to be called, it would be like any other village meeting, and conducted in the same way. The meeting would be chaired by either the president, chairman of the board or by a committee chair.”

No one on the board offered to call the special meeting on Rodgers’ behalf.

Rodgers said after the Board’s March 20 meeting: “The board could have opened it up for public input, and discussion could have occurred between the board and the public in attendance to come to some sort of amicable solution for everyone to feel comfortable in participating. I am quite sure the hat would have been passed to pay for the fee for the fire station.

“Anyone who does not want to participate in a forum of this manner does not want to participate in democracy,” Rodgers alleged. “This [Caledonia government] is not a democracy. It’s a dictatorship.”

Siek said: “The agenda is mine to prepare for all meetings, except chairmen for their committee meetings. No one else prepares an agenda for the village. It’s our duty to prepare the agenda, and we, as a board, would conduct any of the business to be at hand at that meeting.”

Siek argued a majority of the board quorum, or even the majority of a committee quorum, being present would constitute a meeting. Caledonia’s committees each consist of three people, meaning if two members are in the same place discussing public business, a quorum has been established and is subject to the Open Meetings Act.

“It would be a moot issue if there would not be a quorum present at this meeting,” Siek suggested. “And I guess, before any further discussion, I have to find out who among the board members are planning on partaking in this Meet the Candidates meeting that Lisa Rodgers is planning.”

Siek indicated incumbents Kraig Bryan, John Stenerson and Colleen Blaney were the only candidates the Board needed to worry about attending because they were the only Board members seeking re-election.

“Those Board members, if it were not conducted by the village president, are liable, legally liable, for any laws that are broken at that meeting,” Siek stressed. “So, you need to think long and hard.”

One by one, Siek went around the Board table March 20, asking each trustee if they planned to participate in the forum. Only Blaney was undecided, while the others said they did not plan to attend. John Stenerson was not present.

Trustee Bryan told Siek he hadn’t even been invited, a claim Rodgers alleged was incorrect.

“The fact that Mr. Bryan is saying that he was not notified is inaccurate,” Rodgers contended, stating her brother, David Paulsen, had personally handed Bryan, along with other board members, an invitation to participate during the March 13 committee meetings.

When asked by Siek whether he’d been asked to participate, Bryan responded simply, “No.”

Bryan alleged of Board members possibly participating in the proposed forum: “It’s illegal. It’s plain illegal to have this Board involved.”

During public comments, Judy Murphy offered to open her home to candidates, one at a time if necessary, to meet with the community.

Based on her own experience with such a forum, Siek discouraged the idea. “They said that it was not a violation of the law, but it broke the spirit of the law when I invited one trustee at a time into my home,” Siek explained. “So, do what you will with that, Judy.”

Blaney, referring to similar events in nearby communities, noted: “This year, it doesn’t look like it’s gonna go, even though it goes in other municipalities. It’s not working here.”

Rodgers said after the meeting: “I have spoken to the Illinois League of Women Voters, and no one has heard of the reasons given as to why we cannot do it. This is a forum. This is not a meeting.”

“They are using the Open Meetings Act as a form of hiding, rather than affording the public the opportunity to freely go in and to ask questions of the current board members as well as the other candidates,” Rodgers alleged. “It might allow for some uncomfortable questions to be posed.”

Rodgers said she still hopes a forum can be arranged before the April 17 elections.

Rodgers’ husband, Bill, also a former board member, argued, “This extremist point of view would mean that if they went to a public function, or even a church service, it would be a violation of the Open Meetings Act.”

Siek said: “We have to, as a municipality, follow the rules set forth by the Open Meetings Act. We can be fined. There’s a lot of things that can happen to us.”

In a village of only 200, assuring no quorum is present at any given place where community issues might be discussed could prove difficult for board members.

from the March 28-April 3, 2007, issue

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