Taxpayers and watchdogs now have a much longer window to report potential violations of the Illinois Open Meetings Act, thanks to the Oakwood Hills Village Board’s questionable closed-session handling of a scuttled power plant proposal.
House Bill 175, filed by state Rep. David McSweeney and signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Bruce Rauner, extends the reporting time to within 60 days of a potentially illegal meeting’s discovery, rather than 60 days from the date the meeting took place.
Because most public bodies typically don’t approve and release meeting minutes until the next month, the old law left little to no time for alleged violations to be discovered, let alone reported.
McSweeney filed the legislation in response to a private and potentially illegal July 2013 meeting of the Village Board, during which members discussed the monetary windfall that would come from building a $450 million power plant.
Sen. Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington, carried the legislation in the Senate – both lawmakers represent Oakwood Hills and both opposed the project and the village government’s handling of it.
“We’re glad that transparency is going to increase in this state. I certainly am very happy that we were able to pass this legislation and make sure that people are able to pursue Open Meetings Act violations. The situation in Oakwood Hills is an example of when government doesn’t work, and hopefully this will help change that,” said McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills.
The new law has a two-year statute of limitations, and it does not cover meetings that took place before it took effect Wednesday.
The Open Meetings Act not only requires advance notice of meetings but also limits what can be discussed in closed session, away from the scrutiny of the public and the media.
The discussion that Oakwood Hills trustees had behind closed doors – how much Florida-based Enventure Partners would pay the village annually for hosting the natural gas-fired power plant – is not covered under the exemptions listed in the act.
What’s more, the 2013 closed-door discussion wasn’t a matter of public knowledge until a year later, when documentation of it was discovered by Steven Cuda, the attorney hired by residents to oppose the now-abandoned project.
A complaint could not be filed with the attorney general’s public access office – which has binding authority to enforce open-government laws and punish offenders – because the deadline for doing so under the old law had long since passed.
McSweeney, a conservative Republican often at odds with the Democratic leadership of the General Assembly, thanked House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton for moving the bill forward and removing roadblocks to its passage.
The former village president, a village trustee and the village attorney resigned in the wake of the power plant controversy.
About this series
“No More Excuses” is the Northwest Herald’s ongoing series about the public’s right to know in Illinois.
On the Net
Visit foia.ilattorneygeneral.net to learn more about the Illinois Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Acts, and to learn how to file a complaint about a potential violation.