CRYSTAL LAKE – If there’s one guiding principle to be learned from a transparency and ethics training session for newly elected public officials it was this: Avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
Representatives from the McHenry County State’s Attorney and Attorney General offices offered the class last week to give local officials a crash course in government transparency and ethics.
“It’s really designed to help all of us in government better understand our legal and ethical responsibilities, and more efficiently respond to our constituents,” State’s Attorney Lou Bianchi said.
More than that, the informational session would help elected officials avoid potential criminal ramifications, or at the very least embarrassing bad press.
The evening’s event highlighted the Freedom of Information Act, the Open Meetings Act and the Public Officer Prohibited Activities Act.
Donna Kelly with the State’s Attorney’s Office urged elected officials to be aware of any potential conflicts of interest, disclose them and abstain from voting on those matters.
“If you’re concerned at all that you have a conflict, it is always, always best to err on the side of caution because [there can be] criminal ramifications,” Kelly said.
Although rare, there also can be criminal penalties for violating the Open Meetings Act, which ensures that public business is conducted in meetings open to the public.
“Since 1962, one person did go to jail for a violation of the Open Meeting Act, so rest assured you won’t be doing any hard time,” Assistant Attorney General Matt Rogina said to laughs from the crowd.
Rogina quickly made his way through explaining FOIA, which allows people to request public information from the government, and exemptions by which governmental bodies can deny a request.
But the night’s discussions could be summed up in a quote from former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who said “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Rogina said.
“I’m not talking about Lysol,” he said. “I’m talking about the importance of sunshine and government, open records, public disclosure and how that’s essential to democracy.”