Why do government lobbyists oppose descriptive meeting agendas?
Your tax dollars are at work again to help local governments fight legislation requiring them to write meeting agendas with enough information to let you know what they'll be discussing or voting on.
The irony is not lost on me - if I was spending your money to pass laws to keep you in the dark, or to lobby against a bill to keep your property taxes from increasing in a bust housing market, I'd want to write my meeting agendas as vague as I could, too.
House Bill 4687, which passed the House Personnel and Pensions Committee on an 8-0 vote Wednesday, is opposed by the government lobbying groups that represent your county and municipal governments. It strengthens the Open Meetings Act to - gasp! - require that agendas be "sufficiently descriptive to give the public reasonable notice of the items that will be considered or will be the subject of final action at the meeting." It also requires that this description be available for 48 hours prior to said meeting.
Can't have that, can we?
Readers of this blog know that I have been hammering the McHenry County Board and other governments for waging a secret war on the Freedom of Information Act, Open Meetings Act, Public Notice Act and other sunshine laws. While they talk openness and transparency, they are paying lobbyists, again with your tax dollars, to pass a slew of bills weakening your right to know, or in this case, opposing bills strengthening it.
While I'll hammer the County Board for yet again fighting transparency, I'm going to give the board and its staff credit where it's due - their agendas are more than sufficiently descriptive. I have rarely walked into a meeting and not known what was going to happen.
But of course, the County Board is one of 7,000 public bodies in Illinois, Land of Governments.
Let's look at the sufficiently descriptive April 21, 2011 agenda of a special meeting of the McHenry County College Board of Trustees. It voted that evening to spend $750,000 to buy 20 acres for a future expansion of its Crystal Lake campus.
But you wouldn't know that by reading the agenda. How did it describe buying land for future government growth?
"Resolution to make offer".
An offer for what? An offer we can't refuse? Are we Don Vito Corleone now?
(Feel free to insert your joke about former MCC president Walt Packard and offers that can't be refused here.)
"Resolution to make offer" is an unacceptable way to describe spending my tax dollars to buy land to build more buildings and hire more staff, which will likely require even more of my aforementioned tax dollars. And given that the Northwest Herald has won awards for its grapples over MCC's past transparency issues – it took an unrelated Illinois Supreme Court ruling to convince them to hand over Packard's contract – I can't in good conscience give its board the benefit of the doubt.
The taxes that you pay to McHenry County and your municipality are used to pay their dues for Metro Counties of Illinois and the Illinois Municipal League, which as I've written before are lobbying against sunshine laws.
The IML calls this bill "a litigation minefield" that could potentially "open up virtually any action that a public body takes to a challenge over the sufficiency of notice." Of course, this is the same municipal league that warned Gov. Pat Quinn that signing the post-Blagojevich FOIA overhaul would – I kid you not – force governments to lay off police officers and firefighters to pay for responding to FOIA requests.
As I wrote to kick off our series "No More Excuses," the IML all but warned that the Jan. 1, 2010 effective date of the new FOIA would also mark the end of civilization as we knew it (forget pandemics or worldwide economic collapse – it's those darned FOIA requesters). We're still here.
County staff at a Feb. 9 meeting of the County Board Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee explained, like IML, that the bill is written with a gotcha mentality seeking to catch public bodies.
Pardon me for being a wise guy, but how many county and municipal ordinances in Illinois are not written with a "gotcha" mentality?
I bet the McHenry County Historical Society, which had a run-in last year with a McHenry County Department of Health inspector who said its museum needed to buy a $45-per-event permit to serve coffee and cookies, would have a thing to say about this. Ditto with the Franks, Gerkin & McKenna law firm that fought the county sign ordinance to keep a passage from the Old Testament on its front.
And if I had a nickel for every horror story I've heard about a potluck, church picnic or similar innocuous event compromised or ruined by a local government commissar armed with a shiny badge, an inflated ego and a book of The Rules (in caps because, well, they're The Rules), I'd be blogging this from my own private Caribbean island.
While I'm on the subject, if our local governments are opposed to "gotcha" laws, how about our municipalities dismantle all of these red-light cameras? Does anyone believe for a moment that these contraptions have anything to do with public safety and not raising revenue?
Likewise, will any taxpayer believe for a moment that government opposition to a mandate for more descriptive agendas has anything to do with fear of litigation? With all of these anti-sunshine bills being pushed by our local governments in Springfield, a strong argument can be made that this is just more of government's reflexive fear of the voting public.
How many governments would love to use ambiguous agenda language to hide tax referenda, spending increases, plush employee contracts and golden parachute pension-padding raises from you with agenda descriptions such as "vote on ballot," "agree to settlement" and "vote on that guy"?
It's just another front in our local governments' secret war on transparency.
Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at email@example.com.