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Public racks up yet another win in transparency battle

Chalk up another win for the taxpayers in the secret war against transparency being waged by our local governments.

As I wrote last week, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill improving the Open Meetings Act to require government meeting agendas to adequately describe matters they intend to vote on.

The reason for the clarification is to ensure that a taxpayer can look at a meeting agenda and have something of an idea as to how the elected officials plan to spend our money.

Savor. Gloat.

Republican Rep. Sandra Pihos, who authored the bill, cited examples of agendas from public bodies (Illinois has 7,000 of them, by the way) with one-word agenda descriptions such as "revenues" and "rumors". As a veteran journalist, both in the suburbs and downstate, I've seen many of these non-agenda agendas myself.

My story singled out the McHenry County College Board of Trustees – its April 21 agenda for a special meeting described its vote to spend $750,000 to buy land for a future expansion as "Resolution to make offer."

It's way too easy to highlight the MCC board as a poster child for secrecy. But MCC's aforementioned agenda is not an isolated incident or one bad apple.

[To save us all from a guest column, I cite examples of MCC's transparency track record here, here, here, here, here and here.]

All too often, I have come across agendas like this:

1) Pledge of Allegiance

2) Roll Call

3) Executive Session

[AUTHOR'S NOTE: The law calls it "closed session", but many governments call it "executive session" to make themselves sound more important than they really are.]

4) Return to open session

5) Old Business

6) New Business

     a) Salaries

     b) Budget

     c) Action from executive session

7) Adjourn
Before the reform signed by Quinn, this school board could have voted for staff raises under a), a tax hike under b), and a superintendent pay raise under c), and met the legal description of advance notice under the Open Meetings Act.

And that's probably why local governments lobbied hard against the reforms.

As I have written, Metro Counties of Illinois (to which the McHenry County Board belongs) and the Illinois Municipal League (to which most of our cities belong) fought against the requirement. With your tax dollars, as always.

To the County Board's credit, its agendas are adequately descriptive and I often go into a meeting knowing what's going to happen. I think what happened is the counties saw "improve" and "Open Meetings Act" and reflexively lit the torches and brandished the pitchforks.

But that doesn't make the county lobbyist's position any less perplexing. After all, as I blogged here, board members keep telling us that the only way to fight rising property taxes is to go to all of the gazillion meetings of the gazillion taxing bodies on our bills and beg them to stop spending like drunken sailors on shore leave.

Don't we need descriptive meeting agendas to do that?

Unless, of course, this new fad among our elected officials to "hold the line" on taxes mysteriously evaporates on Nov. 7 ...

Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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