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State Rep. David McSweeney's Open Meetings Act reform bill clears committee

Bill inspired by secret Oakwood Hills power plant meeting

A bill giving citizens a longer window to report Open Meetings Act violations is headed to the full Illinois House floor for a vote after clearing committee Thursday morning.

House Bill 175, sponsored by Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, unanimously passed the House Judiciary - Civil Committee and could come to a vote in the coming weeks. The bill, inspired by the debacle surrounding the Oakwood Hills power plant proposal, would allow people to report a possible violation of the act within 60 days of its discovery, rather than 60 days from the date of the meeting.

A new provision that imposes a five-year statute of limitations helped secure the support of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, which had been neutral on the legislation, McSweeney said.

“I have a lot of momentum in the House, and this helps,” McSweeney said.

McSweeney filed the legislation in response to what was potentially an illegal July 2013 meeting by the Oakwood Hills Village Board in which it discussed in closed-session the monetary windfall that would come from the building of a 430-megawatt, $450-million power plant in the small town. The Open Meetings Act, which among other things limits what governments can debate behind closed doors, does not have an exemption that covers such a conversation.

But the meeting was not public knowledge until a year later, in July 2014, when it was discovered by the attorney hired by village residents who were opposed to the project.

While the secret meeting helped contribute to the community outrage that led to the project’s scuttling and the resignations of the village president, a trustee and the village attorney, it could not be submitted to the attorney general’s public access counselor for investigation because the 60-day window had long passed.

McSweeney re-filed the bill with the swearing-in of the new General Assembly in January. He said the statute of limitations and a provision requiring that a person reporting an alleged violation exercise “reasonable diligence” in identifying the date and subject of a meeting helps deter overly-broad or politically-motivated nuisance requests.

State Sen. Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington, has already filed a placeholder bill in the Senate, and will be the bill's chief sponsor once it clears the House, McSweeney said.

The Oakwood Hills meeting is not the only questionable one that could not be reported because of the current time limit. The Northwest Herald in 2013 requested a review of a number of likely Open Meetings Act violations by the Prairie Grove School District 46 board, but the state public access counselor declined to investigate, citing that the 60-day time limit had elapsed.

McSweeney’s bill is one of several filed by legislators aimed at strengthening the Open Meetings Act.

House Bill 248, filed by Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, empowers judges to nullify any vote by a public body that violates the act, not just votes illegally taken in closed session. House Bill 303, filed by Rep. Margo McDermed, R-Mokena, makes another attempt to forbid severance agreements paid with public funds from including confidentiality clauses.

House Bill 1323, filed by Rep. Sam Yingling, D-Grayslake, clarifies language to ensure that posting requirements for government websites are not limited to websites maintained by full-time government staff.

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