City officials may have violated open meetings law

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Press attorney on Dec. 21 home rule ‘seminar’: ‘It sounds like it may have very well violated the Act’

When City of Rockford officials held a meeting Dec. 21 for “city staff and aldermen,” they may have violated the state’s Open Meetings Act, according to Scott Sievers, an attorney with the Illinois Press Association. At the time, city officials described the event as a “lecture” and “seminar” to learn about and discuss home rule authority.

Sievers expressed his opinion about the event during a Dec. 30 interview after being apprised of who attended and the purpose of the “lecture.”

The two-hour meeting at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Rockford featured retired Northern Illinois University Professor James Banovetz, who discussed the advantages and disadvantages of home rule powers in Illinois. Banovetz also answered questions from aldermen.

The Rock River Times was the only media outlet to cover the entire meeting and report which aldermen attended the “seminar.” Of the 14 Rockford aldermen, the seven who attended the “lecture” were: Joe Sosnowski (R-1), Pat Curran (R-2), Victory Bell (D-5), Bill Timm (R-9), Jeff Holt (D-11), Linda McNeely (D-13) and Dan Conness (D-14).

Most of the time spent discussing the aldermen’s and city administrators’ questions concerned the parameters, limitations and uses of home rule power.

Also in attendance were City Attorney Patrick Hayes and Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey, who is also an attorney. Morrissey said at the Dec. 21 meeting that a videotape of Banovetz’s presentation would be available for viewing by the public.


At issue was whether the seven aldermen who attended the lecture constituted a “meeting” as defined in the Open Meetings Act (state statute 5 ILCS 120/1.02). In the Act, a meeting is defined as a “gathering of a majority of a quorum of the members of a public body held for the purpose of discussing public business.”

Also, in question was whether the public was denied access to the meeting.

In support of Sievers’ opinion, an August 2004 open meetings law guide issued by Attorney General Lisa Madigan suggests the city violated the act because the public was not invited, and a majority of a quorum was present.

On page 18 of the guide, which concerns a quorum majority, Madigan wrote: “This part of the definition is intended to reach the smallest number of members of a public body able to control action when a quorum is present. …For example, if a public body has seven members, a quorum of that body is four, and a majority of the quorum is three. Therefore, three is the smallest number of members of the body to which the act applies.”

Translated, Madigan’s opinion suggests that if a city council has 14 aldermen, such as Rockford, a quorum would be eight aldermen, and a majority of a quorum is five aldermen, to which the law would apply.

If the law applied, Sievers said: “It has to be open and convenient to the public. Having the press as some sort of proxy for the public there” is not sufficient to comply with the Open Meetings Act. They have to open it to the public. …It is presumably open to the public.”

He added that governmental agencies holding meetings subject to the law are required to notify the public of the meeting and issue an agenda of topics.

Speaking specifically about the Dec. 21 “seminar,” Sievers added: “I think it’s probably covered by the Open Meetings Act. I think they should have posted a notice/agenda. I don’t see any excuse, any exception that applies. It sounds like it may have very well violated the Act.”

If the seminar was subject to the Open Meetings Act, it was unclear by time of publication whether the $300 the city allegedly paid Banovetz for the “lecture” constituted taxpayer money to a political cause.

Press releases

The city did issue a type of public notice in the form of a “press advisory” on Dec. 20 that read: “This seminar has been scheduled for city staff and aldermen in response to questions for factual information on the issue of home rule. The mayor’s office and personnel department are sponsoring this lecture, which is designed to help staff and aldermen respond to constituents factual questions on the issue of home rule.”

In response, the press advisory, home rule opponent and Rockford resident John Gile said he was informed by an unknown female city employee Dec. 21 that he could not attend “because it was for city employees. I could only go if I was a city employee.”

Gile issued a press release that same day, which read: “Private citizens have been denied access to a meeting of aldermen and city workers with home rule motivational speaker James Banovetz tonight in the auditorium of the University of Illinois School of Medicine.

“Banovetz will speak from 6 to 8 p.m. His presentations are designed to dispel citizens’ concerns about local governments’ virtually unlimited power to tax, to regulate, and to incur debt under the unique Illinois version of so-called home rule. His motivational programs include selected statistics,

appealing illustrations of how other cities use home rule, and dramatic pronouncements such as his claim in Geneva June 14 that Geneva would be powerless to control its own destiny unless the city becomes a home rule community.”

The city responds

Hayes responded to inquiries Jan. 3 about the seminar by saying: “We indicated that the intent of the meeting was for city employees [in the Dec. 20 press advisory]. But as you know, because you attended, nobody was declined admittance. And nobody would have told, as far as I know, that the public would have not been allowed in. But they would have been told that the intention of the meeting was for employees and aldermen.”

Asked if he thought the manner in which the meeting was advertised was misleading to discourage the public from attending, Hayes said: “I don’t believe it’s misleading at all. We stated what the intention of the meeting was. The press was allowed to attend, as was any member of the public. And I don’t believe that anyone was told the public would be turned away.”

As to Gile’s inquiry to attend, Hayes responded: “First of all, I wasn’t aware of Mr. Gile’s inquiry, or I would have spoken directly with him myself. …We tended to the spirit and letter of the law. And you can verify with Mr. Gile that I have done everything I can to be friendly and cordial to him. I have a great deal of respect for him. And if I was aware for one instance that he was misled in any way, I would have directly intervened. …

“You’re writing a story about nothing, in my opinion,” Hayes said.

Morrissey was out of town, and not available for comment by time of publication.

Possible fallout

According to Madigan’s guide, “The Open Meetings Act provides for both civil and criminal enforcement.”

Any person, including the local state’s attorney, may file a claim in civil court. However, only the local state’s attorney may file a criminal complaint against individuals.

Gile said he is considering whether to legally pursue the issue in civil court or file a complaint with Winnebago County State’s Attorney Paul Logli’s office. Logli is Gile’s brother-in-law through his marriage to Logli’s sister.

Logli did not repsond for comment by time of publication.

Logli has 60 days from the day of the alleged meeting to take any action, or within 60 days of the discovery of a violation of the law.

If Logli chooses the unlikely route of filing criminal charges, any person found guilty of violating the law is guilty of a Class C misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of up to $1,500 and 30 days in jail.

Of the seven aldermen who attended, Curran and Holt represented two of the five members of the Codes and Regulations Committee.

The committee was expected to vote Jan. 3 on whether they wanted to make Illinois history by being the first large community government to recommend approval of a resolution by placing the question on the ballot for voters.


s of the vote were not available by time of publication.

From the Jan. 4-10, 2006, issue

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