Friday, July 11, 2008

Village Clerk responds to possible Open Meetings Act violation

Well, you didn't expect Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who is going to run for governor soon, to criticize the 19th Ward -- er, the Village of Orland Park for their unusual, unprecedented non-public public notice about a last-minute special meeting to discuss the surprise, unexpected deficit in the upcoming village budget, did you?

Orland Park Village Clerk David Maher sent me this letter, which I gladly publish and share:

July 11, 2008

Mr. Ray Hanania
Orland Park, Il 60462
Dear Mr. Hanania:

Please permit me to respond to the July 9, 2008 column entitled, "Village of Orland Park may have violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act." This particular column concerns the Village issuing a meeting notice on Friday, June 27, 2008 for a meeting of Orland Park’s Board of Trustees on Monday, June 30, 2008 at 6:00 p.m.

The Village of Orland Park did not violate the Illinois Open Meetings Act, 5 ILCS 120/1 et seq. We followed the 48 hours notice, as required by the Open Meetings Act, which states, "Public notice of special meetings, except a meeting held in the event of a bona fide emergency, must be given at least 48 hours before such special meeting, and the notice must also include the agenda for the special meeting. The actions of the public body, while not required to be specifically detailed in the notice, should be "closely related" to those matters set forth in the agenda for the special meeting."

The Village followed the stipulations of the act, announcing the meeting 48 hours before it was convened and included the agenda for the meeting. This notice was publicly posted in the lobby of the Village Hall, on the Village’s website and was distributed to the media.

As for the "not for publication" notation on the notice, this was not an "embargo order" as assumed. This phrase is used to let the media know that paid space is not being purchased for publishing the notice. This same notice was distributed to all of the media outlets that have filed requests with the Village of Orland Park to receive such notices.

The Illinois Attorney General has exonerated the Village of Orland Park and in its letter to Mr. Hanania wrote, "While general public notice is the underlying purpose of the Act’s notice requirements, there is no evidence that the conduct of the Village in this case violates any of the Act’s provisions."

Assistant Public Access Counselor Amanda Lundeen further wrote, "…the Act only requires that the notice be posted, not that the Village ensure that it be published." And, Assistant Attorney General Lundeen closes with, "As such, it does not appear from the information provided that any violation of the Open Meetings Act occurred."

Sincerely yours,
David P. Maher
Village Clerk
Village of Orland Park

While I appreciate Clerk Maher as being a great public servant, and while we often agree on so many other issues, permit me to disagree on this one. Mr. Maher has come up with a very interesting explanation that, as a political reporter for some 30 years, I have never heard uttered once:

"This phrase is used to let the media know that paid space is not being purchased for publishing the notice."

In my opinion, that is ridiculous!

If that were the intent of the phrase they typed in UPPERCASE letters "NOT FOR PUBLICATION," they would have said it in English, "The Village did not pay to have this published."

And, if Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who is expected to run for governor and needs Orland Park's support, doesn't want to criticize the village, not even to urge them to change their language on future postings, that doesn't change the fact of the matter at all.

The village did achieve what in my opinion was their real intent, to minimize public participation at the meeting at which they disclosed the shortfall in the next fiscal budget. Announce a "special meeting" on a Friday. Put at the top of the notice "NOT FOR PUBLICATION." And then spint he story that this isn't a "deficit" or a "shortfall." It's just that this year's revenues don't meet the expenses we have for next year. Ooops!

But, the important thing, is that we will be watching the village conduct regarding the budget and how they hope to cover the budget deficit.

What the village has not responded to yet is 'what was the rush?' How is it that only a few months after such a glowing overview of the village's budget made by Mayor Dan McLaughlin at the Orland Park Area Chamber of Commerce, the village is suddenly 4 percent short in revenues to cover budget expenditures, a situation that requires them to cutback services to off-set the shortfall?

I haven't heard an answer to that.

Still, Clerk Maher is a responsible official, taking the time to answer the public's concern. Public accountability is about forcing government officials to address issues even when they don't like the issues or they don't want to address the issues. They work for us. We, the public, don't work for them.

Ray Hanania

PS: I am glad that the village got a response from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office about an "INQUIRY" that I sent the Attorney General asking if the Attorney General would look at the issue, BEFORE I actually got a response from the Illinois Attorney General. It just goes to show where the Illinois Attorney General's priorities are at, I guess.

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