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Recent Grafton Township meeting on shaky legal ground

Published: Thursday, March 7, 2013 5:31 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, March 8, 2013 12:36 a.m. CDT

HUNTLEY – Grafton Township officials are losing control of the township’s dire finances, even prompting Supervisor Linda Moore to call potentially illegal meetings to solve the financial crisis.

Moore convened a rare emergency meeting earlier this week to solve cash flow issues that she said threatened to shut down the township. But questions remain whether the meeting, which featured official votes, should have been conducted at all.

Moore had been authorized at a Feb. 20 meeting to pay the Grafton Township Road District back from a $300,000 loan made years ago for the defunct town hall project.

Moore argued the loan would have created a $114,000 deficit and would have prevented employees from being paid, effectively shutting down the township.

But Moore admitted that the $300,000 loan had not yet been paid, adding that she had enough money in the township to cover the payroll and keep the township operational for the rest of the week.

“There were adequate funds to make this week’s payroll with the actions taken by the board at the last meeting [Feb. 20],” Moore said after  Wednesday’s emergency meeting.

In the Feb. 20 meeting, the board approved a separate loan from the road district for $115,000 to give the township enough cash to stay open until mid-March. Moore said she made payroll on Tuesday.

Sensing the lack of emergency, the three trustees present Wednesday postponed the meeting, 3-1, until next week to give them time to review the township’s finances.

“I feel at this time we can function just like we are until our regular meeting on Thursday night,” said Trustee Betty Zirk, who joined trustees Barb Murphy and Rob LaPorta in postponing the meeting. Moore was the lone “no” vote. Trustee Gerry McMahon was absent.

But the trustees’ vote might have been illegal, since the township was not facing an immediate emergency because its payroll obligations were paid for the week. The meeting defied the typical 48-hour notice required in the Illinois Open Meetings Act to notify the public of a governmental meeting. The Open Meetings Act does allow a local government to bypass the required 48-hour notice when the issue at hand constitutes a “bona fide emergency,” in which case public notice should be given as soon as practicable.

The act falls short of defining a bona fide emergency, and the courts have not provided clear guidance on the issue. But based on prior opinions from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, Moore’s call for an emergency meeting is shrouded in legal doubt.

The Illinois Attorney General’s Office has issued opinions that clarify that a bona fide emergency can only be called when the issue can’t wait 48 hours to be resolved.

Moore gave the trustees and public four-hour notice of the emergency meeting Wednesday afternoon. On Thursday, Moore deferred to her attorney, John Nelson, who defended the supervisor’s decision to convene the impromptu meeting and prevent the township from going bankrupt in the near future.

“I would say the decision to address a fiscal nightmare is probably a bona fide emergency,” Nelson said. But Nelson couldn’t say whether the issue was pressing enough to forgo the 48-hour public notice requirement. Since 2009, the Illinois Attorney General’s public office counselor has issued opinions to settle potential Open Meeting Act violations.

In March 2011, the public access counselor received a review request that alleged the Roodhouse City Council in Roodhouse, nearly 55 miles southwest of Springfield, violated the Open Meetings Act by failing to give 48-hour notice of a meeting.

The Roodhouse council argued that the meeting constituted a bona fide emergency, since members needed to act on a recent decision by the city’s Park Board to delay the opening of a campground that residents had already registered to use.

With lost city revenue at stake, the council convened the emergency meeting on March 21, 2011, arguing it needed to take immediate action to ensure that the campground opened on time on April 1.

The Illinois public access counselor ruled that the Roodhouse council had not sufficiently explained how providing a 48-hour notice would have delayed the campground opening, since the council met 10 days before the scheduled opening date.

In a separate review, the public access counselor sided with the Shumway Fire Protection District in Effingham, which called an emergency meeting after the fire chief made a late-night decision to suspend a chief officer without informing the board.

The fire protection district, which governs personnel decisions, argued the meeting constituted a bona fide emergency since the abrupt suspension would have adversely affected the district’s operations. In the opinion, the public access counselor defined “emergency” as an unforeseen combination of circumstances that calls for immediate action without time for full deliberation.

“In this instance, the sudden suspension of a top official without prior notification to or permission from the board constitutes an unforeseen occurrence that had a significant effect on the organization and operation of the Shumway Fire Protection District,” the public access counselor ruled.

In Grafton’s case, the emergency meeting was called to address a financial crisis that trustees have known about since January.

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