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Government Commentary

Schaumburg: Open meetings agreement disappoints


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Two significant conclusions can be drawn from the agreement reached this week between the DeKalb Public Library Board and the DeKalb County State's Attorney's Office regarding the board's Open Meetings Act violation.

The settlement – filed and approved in court this week and amounting to little more than a slap on the wrist – shows us that the DeKalb Library Board still has no credibility and that state laws in place to enforce and protect open and transparent government are viewed as a nuisance by many of those in power, including DeKalb County's presiding judge.

The Illinois Open Meetings Act states: "No final action may be taken at a closed meeting. Final action shall be preceded by a public recital of the nature of the matter being considered and other information that will inform the public of the business being conducted."

The minutes of the library board's May 12 closed session – which were released as part of the settlement – state: "Casella moved and Neher seconded that the contract be signed with the agreement that Gary Cordes include in the contract the necessary changes concerning the environmental studies. The motion was approved after a roll call. All were in favor."

Casella is board trustee Clarence Casella, and Neher is board vice president Clark Neher. The contract that the board voted be signed was that of a $1.8 million purchase of the old DeKalb Clinic property to build a new library.

To this day, even in the court filing, the board contends that voting on the contract was not final action. DeKalb County State's Attorney John Farrell disagrees. In the agreement, Farrell, on behalf of the State of Illinois, "asserts said vote was a violation of the relevant provisions of the Illinois Open Meetings Act."

It is disappointing that Farrell did not demand an admission of guilt in regard to the vote as part of the agreement. Instead, the dog-and-pony show that was the Aug. 11 vote on the contract in open session helped him look the other way.

In reality, Farrell would have been doing the library board a favor if he had made such a demand, with the threat of a fine, as terms of any settlement. Doing so would have helped save the library board's credibility.

Instead, the library board has no credibility. After once admitting the vote was a violation and then retracting the admission by citing exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act, the board has held steadfast that it did not break the law. If it truly believed that, then it shouldn't have voted again on the contract Aug. 11. If the board didn't break the law, there's no reason to vote again.

Almost as disappointing was Presiding Judge Kurt Klein's take on the situation.

Klein said in court: “We get good people from the community who contribute their time, energies and talents to serve the community with no gain for themselves, and they get caught up in something this technical. My fear is that things like this discourage other good people from coming forward and serving the community.”

When did breaking the law become a technicality? That's a disappointing sentiment coming from the county's top judge. Instead of fearing that "things like this" – also known as breaking the law – discourage good people from serving the community, how about encouraging others to take note of the situation and convey the seriousness of abiding by the law?

But, we've come to expect this kind of reaction when it comes to the Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act. Klein's statement and Farrell's refusal to demand an admission of guilt regarding the vote further illustrate how some elected officials and some law enforcement officials view laws aimed at shining light on government business, which is the people's business.

This is just one incident in a long line of violations where those involved defied the law and those charged with upholding it all but turned the other way.

Too often, breaches of these acts are brushed aside. Lawmakers talk a big game when it comes to transparency, but do little about it.

Penalties for violating the Freedom of Information Act or Open Meetings Act became a little stiffer this year, but until those violating the acts are held responsible, scenarios like the one with the DeKalb Library Board will continue.

• Jason Schaumburg is editor of the Daily Chronicle. E-mail him at jschaumburg@daily-chronicle.com. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DC_Editor, and check out his blog, From the Editor’s Desk, at Daily-Chronicle.com/blogs.

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