Local Government

Illinois Open Meetings Act bill to be debated

McSweeney likely to tweak legislation to help its odds

State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills
State Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills

A bill inspired by the Oakwood Hills power plant debacle to make it easier to report Illinois Open Meetings Act violations will likely get a minor tweak to help its odds of passage.

House Bill 175, filed last month by Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, seeks to allow people to report a violation of the act within 60 days of its discovery. Current law limits the reporting period to 60 days from the date of the meeting in question, meaning that violations discovered after that date cannot be reported to the Illinois Attorney General’s Office.

McSweeney said he likely will amend the bill to set a five-year limit on how far back an illegal meeting took place. While the bill generally has gotten positive feedback, McSweeney said, some lawmakers have raised concerns that people could make unduly burdensome requests for decades worth of meeting minutes.

“That’s not what I’m trying to do,” McSweeney said.

His bill will be debated Thursday morning before the House Judiciary-Civil Committee in Springfield.

McSweeney first filed the legislation last September, after an attorney for area residents opposed to building a 430-megawatt, $450-million power plant in the small town discovered that the Village Board had discussed the proposal in closed session in July 2013, nearly a year before the proposal was made public. The village and the project were in McSweeney’s district.

A Northwest Herald analysis of the minutes from the closed-session meeting concluded that board members likely violated the law. The Open Meetings Act, which among other things limits what governments can debate behind closed doors, does not include an exemption that covers the discussion of how much money power plant company Enventure Partners would pay the village. The company has since withdrawn the plan.

But while the secret meeting helped contribute to the community outrage that led to the resignations of the village president, a trustee and the village attorney, it was not discovered until long after the 60-day period to request an attorney general’s review had passed. State law gives the attorney general’s public access counselor binding authority to enforce the Open Meetings and Freedom of Information acts.

The current 60-day limit also makes it very difficult to file complaints about closed-session meetings, given that governments are only required to review said minutes for possible release twice a year.

He refiled the bill with the seating of the new General Assembly in January – the power plant controversy began in earnest last summer after state lawmakers had already adjourned the spring session.

Imposing a five-year limit will be the second change the bill has undergone. McSweeney slightly modified the original bill at the request of the attorney general’s office to ensure that a person requesting a review of a potential Open Meetings Act violation exercises “reasonable diligence” in identifying the meeting date and subject matter, to discourage overly broad and politically motivated requests.

McSweeney has cited other Northwest Herald stories in past years – which uncovered numerous apparent violations of the Open Meetings Act by local school boards – as showing the need to give the public more opportunities to report them. The newspaper in 2013 requested a review of a number of likely violations by the Prairie Grove School District 46 board, but the public access counselor declined to investigate, citing the 60-day time limit under the law.

On the Net

You can read the text of House Bill 175 at www.ilga.gov.

Visit foia.ilattorneygeneral.net to learn more about the Illinois Open Meetings and Freedom of Information acts.

About this series

“No More Excuses” is the Northwest Herald’s ongoing series about the public’s right to know in Illinois.

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