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Closed meeting questioned

Board members won’t reveal discussion details

Published: Friday, Nov. 30, 2012 1:15 a.m. CST

MORRISON – Whiteside County Board members on Thursday continued to defend their decision to meet behind closed doors to discuss the selection of a new board chairman.

Others say the board broke the law.

Wednesday night, the board’s Democratic majority met at a union hall in Rock Falls. No public notice was provided for the meeting – they called it a caucus – and the public was barred from attending.

A reporter was warned that police would be called if he didn’t leave.

In Illinois, the Open Meetings Act prevents public bodies from holding unadvertised, closed meetings where public business is discussed. The law was meant to allow the public to watch their government in action, so citizens could hold their elected officials accountable.

Whiteside County Board Chairman Tony Arduini, D-Rock Falls, is stepping down after 20 years at the helm. Members said they discussed in private who would replace Arduini; the entire board will elect the new chairman Monday.

Democratic members said they had held such closed meetings for years. They said the board’s GOP caucus does the same, although two Republican members said Thursday that they didn’t believe their party ever had held such meetings.

Board member Sarah McNeill, D-Sterling, who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said she believed it was a legal meeting.

“We weren’t deciding any issues,” she said. “We talked about [the chairmanship], but we didn’t vote on it.”

She said a board majority couldn’t discuss public business in private, but she said an exception is made for the selection of board chairman.

McNeill cited an attorney general’s opinion stating that political party committees were not subject to the Open Meetings Act.

But Don Craven, an attorney for the Illinois Press Association, said a County Board majority is not considered a political party committee. The attorney general, he said, was referring to county political organizations.

“They’re reading the wrong part of the law,” Craven said.

Asked who would be chairman, McNeill said it was a secret.

“You’ll find out Monday night,” she said. “The person who was discussed would have to make that announcement.”

Member Sue Britt, D-Morrison, also wouldn’t say who would be chairman. She said the state’s attorney advised the board that the majority Democrats could legally meet.

State’s Attorney Gary Spencer, who is retiring today after 30 years, didn’t return a message for comment.

Maryam Judar, an attorney with the Elmhurst-based Citizens Advocacy Center, said the majority Democrats couldn’t meet in private.

“Discussion of the chairman of the County Board is definitely public business,” she said. “It’s unequivocal.”

David Morrison, deputy director of the Chicago-based Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, agreed. He said he was unaware of any exemptions for private meetings of a county board’s majority caucus.

Officials from Lee and Ogle counties say their county boards don’t hold private caucuses.

Lee County Board member Rick Ketchum, D-Amboy, who is poised to become his board’s next chairman, said he believed discussions of public business should happen in open meetings.

As for Whiteside County’s caucus, he said, “I don’t want to knock people, but it seems a little fishy.”

Asked about his Democratic colleagues’ meeting, Whiteside County Board member Bud Thompson, R-Prophetstown, noted that General Assembly caucuses meet privately.

“So why not county boards?” he said.

Chairman vote Monday

The Whiteside County Board will have its organizational meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Whiteside County Courthouse, 400 N. Cherry St. in Morrison.

The board will elect its chairman and vice chairman.

Call the Whiteside County administrator's office at 815-772-5100.

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