Caledonia Village Board shuts down public discussion

Like an old 8-track tape stuck to one program and repeating a well-worn song, so was the Caledonia Village Board meeting that took place March 20. A small group of citizens, some residents of the Village, some close to village borders, approached the Caledonia Village Board with one simple request, to have an open forum inviting all candidates who seek election to a village trustee position in the April Election. The board was well informed in advance, e-mails were sent at least a week prior to the board meeting, letters were mailed, and even residents of the surrounding area were contacted to anticipate an event meant to build open dialogue and help create an informed electorate. In short, an old-fashioned Town Meeting just to talk and reacquaint, or meet new acquaintances. To quote the letter attached to the packet given to the Caledonia Board: “This event was planned in good faith and it was not intended to cause any harm to the village or to violate the Open Meetings Act…that all parties involved be comfortable with the event and therefore would choose to attend and or participate.”

Accompanied with the request for this election forum was a copy of instructions from the Illinois Attorney General’s office detailing the necessary steps for the Caledonia Village Board to take that allowed for compliance of the Open Meetings Act and, therefore, would allow all candidates, current board members and new, to attend the forum lawfully. This letter was supplied by Assistant Attorney General Scott B. Sievers, followed by his phone number and contact information.

But, similar to past events in the village, the leadership on the Caledonia Board appeared unable or unwilling to hear what exactly the request was. In fact, judging from the comments made by the current Village President Susan M. Siek, the request of a lawful election forum was declared just the opposite, illegal. Statements like, “If any board member attends this meeting, they (the board member) would be subject to litigation!” This was said prior to any discussion among the board members. In another response it was said, “this (request of an election forum) would set a dangerous precedence…that someone outside the (village) board could call a special meeting.”

The irony here shows the village board either did not read the request in front of them or chose to ignore it. The steps written by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office specifically state that for compliance to the OMA, it is up to the board to call the meeting, and the board to approve the agenda. The request to the Caledonia Village board that night was for the village board to call for a special meeting to allow for the election forum. But, they, the village board, seemed distant, as if divided by a communications gap, or crossings. In fact, communications became so confusing, that even one of the trustees exasperated, “This law is so twisted!” The end result of the misinformation was a unanimous decision by the board to squelch lawful assembly and the requested open forum.

What was exposed is the existing gap, or the real Caledonia Crossing that is present within this small community. It was apparent during the past few years when a development of the same name was being crafted, it pitted the elected against the electorate, and that same gap still appears to exist today. Despite heavy resistance from residents, a poorly-planned development was approved by the village board. If not for a last-minute, almost inadvertent amendment to the pre-annexation agreement by one of the trustees adding “impact fees,” and the downturn of the housing market, that development would be in full swing today. Some call it divine intervention. No complete explanation was ever provided by the village board members who approved this development, and now, with the denial for the request (for the village board to request) an open forum, no one’s actions will have to be discussed. Nothing will be discussed.

The April election will bring change to the current village board, but no matter what changes take place, Caledonia still has its crossings. There are many important issues that the Village of Caledonia faces, but after the last village board meeting, only one remains imperative if another folly is to be averted. That open lines of communications between the village board and the residents at large be renewed. No municipal governing body can continue without the support of its people and open lines of communication between the two. And when simple, lawful requests for open, public discussion are so rudely dismissed, everyone loses.

Bill Rodgers is a past resident and now neighbor of the Village of Caledonia.

from the April 4-10, 2007, issue

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