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Olson: A secret meeting that wasn’t

Published: Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

I was hoping the first conversation I had with Jeff Metzger, the new DeKalb County Board chairman, could have been a little bit lighter.

Instead, I was criticizing the way the new board went about electing him chairman Dec. 3.

There’s nothing wrong with Metzger’s contentious election by a 12-11 vote, even though his rival, Republican Ken Andersen, did storm out of the meeting and accusations were made that Metzger didn’t represent his Republican Party in accepting a nomination from the Democrats.

Metzger did fine defending himself. He said several people, including some of his fellow Republicans, encouraged him to seek the chairmanship, so he accepted the Dems’ nomination.

But before Metzger was voted chairman, the board decided to “stand at ease,” divide into groups and talk among themselves, out of range of microphones and the public’s ear.

It occurred as State’s Attorney Richard Schmack looked on from the audience.

Our state has a law called the Open Meetings Act; it’s designed to ensure the public can know how its representatives are conducting public business. The act’s stated purpose is “to ensure that the actions of public bodies be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.” It also requires that minutes be kept of conversations at public meetings.

It also says that matters such as the election of officers on the board, which the board chairman is, are not exempt from public discussion.

Schmack wasn’t available for comment Friday, but he said in a memo to Metzger, which was sent to the Daily Chronicle, that the small-group discussions were party caucuses and that their discussions were “purely political.”

Never mind that Schmack wasn’t involved in the discussions personally, or that the members of the parties went back and forth between the groups. Don’t forget, the members were meeting as the county board on Dec. 3, not the Republican Central Committee or the Democratic Central Committee.

They were discussing business on the board’s agenda that night, namely the election of a board chairman. Not a party chairman, a County Board chairman.

But Schmack can try to justify the fiasco however he likes.

Metzger told me Friday that his goal as chairman is for transparency in county government. He says he doesn’t think the board’s action at the meeting violated the Open Meetings law, but agrees the last-minute caucuses weren’t ideal.

“I would rather not see something like this happen again,” Metzger said Friday. “We should be organized before we go into a meeting. Unfortunately, what took place was last minute.”

Hmm. So if it wasn’t illegal, you would think the board would do it all the time. But no, Schmack says we don’t need to worry about that.

“The election of a chairman and a vice chairman having been accomplished … it does not appear that any purely party business remains to be done,” Schmack’s memo said.

Well, it looks as though open government is safe after all.

I was worried there for a moment.

The upside: Metzger says he wants open government and transparency. He’s a board veteran and he seems like a sincere guy.

Now that the board has a leader, hopefully he will get things under control, and hopefully the new County Board members will get open meetings training so that next time the state’s attorney doesn’t need more than a week to justify their conduct at a public meeting.

Huskies street team: A little more than two weeks remain until the Northern Illinois University football team makes its first appearance in a BCS bowl.

Friday morning, a group of 14 students and support staff were in Chicago’s Loop, whipping up enthusiasm among the denizens of the big city.

They left DeKalb around 4 a.m. with 2,000 oranges, lots of NIU merchandise, plenty of enthusiasm and, of course, Victor E. Huskie. The group was mentioned on the local TV news affiliates of ABC, NBC, CBS and WGN.

“It’s mainly an awareness campaign, keeping Northern Illinois on people’s minds and connecting with different people,” NIU spokesman Paul Palian said.

Ezekiel Jackson, a freshman at NIU, picked the right fall to enroll.

He has been at every football game and has performed there, too, playing the mellophone in the Huskie marching band. Jackson and his bandmates will perform before the Orange Bowl begins on New Year’s Day and will play in the stands, he said.

“I can’t wait to be down in Florida to see the beaches and be in the hotel and especially see the game, see our dogs hopefully win the big one for us, and bring some oranges back home,” Jackson said.

After making stops at train stations, the Thompson Center and at shopping destinations in downtown Chicago, the group planned to move on to suburban communities in Glen Ellyn, Naperville and finally, Geneva. Jackson said the reaction from people was great. They were taking photos with Victor E., the students and, of course, they loved the freebies.

“Everybody’s loving it,” Jackson said. “… Chicago’s loving us.”

What can you say?: I offer my own words not because they are particularly awe-inspiring, but simply because it can not be said enough – my heart goes out to the parents, children, law enforcement officers, townspeople and others whose lives were affected by the tragic shooting Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

As a parent, the story makes me want to weep as President Barack Obama did when speaking about it Friday afternoon.

I am sure many others did, as well.

It seems impossible to imagine the depth of grief that the parents who lost children Friday must feel. I cannot imagine what depth of illness could motivate someone to perpetrate an act of such enormity.

I know this community has experienced something similar, albeit before I arrived, and I feel for all of you who still struggle with memories of that time, as well. I am sorry to all whose lives have been affected by these tragic, random shootings and wish them all whatever peace they can find.

• Eric Olson is the editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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