SYCAMORE – Legal questions remain unanswered more than a week after the DeKalb County Board paused a public meeting to divide into two groups before choosing the new chairman.
DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack, who was present at the Dec. 3 meeting, said “the events are under review” but declined to comment further as he still is determining whether an Open Meetings Act violation occurred. He said he hoped to have more information in a few days.
Video of the meeting is available at dekalbcounty.org.
A potential violation of the act could have occurred when board members voted to “stand at ease” before leaving their seats and congregating with each other where the discussions were no longer part of public record or being recorded by microphones.
Election of the chairman was listed on the County Board’s public agenda.
Members, wanting to discuss the contentious subject of who should chair the board after a prearranged agreement fell apart during public discussion at the meeting, first suggested going into recess and heading to separate meeting rooms.
Pat Vary, D-DeKalb, who served as temporary chairwoman, suggested Democrats go to the Liberty Room and Republicans go to the Freedom Room.
Schmack advised the board such a move would be in violation of the Open Meetings Act. Then, County Board members suggested standing at ease to allow an ad-hoc committee to meet, which Schmack also advised against. During the roughly 15-minute ordeal in the public portion of the meeting, board members Paul Stoddard, D-DeKalb, and Charles Foster, R-Shabbona, were in off-microphone discussions with each other.
The board eventually voted to stand at ease and divided into two groups to talk about who they wanted to elect.
Don Craven, general counsel for the Illinois Press Association, said the break sounded illegal.
“I see a major problem with that scenario,” Craven said.
Schmack provided the Daily Chronicle with an Illinois Supreme Court decision. In the 1980 case, the court ruled nine members of the 15-person Urbana City Council were wrong to meet before a council meeting to discuss items on the public agenda.
The opinion in the case made a differentiation between informal discussions about political issues and public discussions about public business.
“The Act is only addressed to meetings designed to discuss or reach an accord with regard to public business which properly should be deliberated or acted upon in an open forum,” the 1980 opinion states. “Public officials’ desire to consult privately must give way to the open conduct of the public’s business.”