Local Government

McHenry County Board township consolidation vote violated Open Meetings Act, AG rules

Attorney general's ruling doesn't change outcome of vote

WOODSTOCK – The Illinois Attorney General’s Office ruled that the McHenry County Board violated the Open Meetings Act when it allowed two members to participate by phone in its October vote to reject a township consolidation initiative.

But the victory for anti-township activist Bob Anderson, the Wonder Lake barber who filed the complaint, does not nullify the County Board’s decision or force a revote.

In a three-page decision, the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Bureau concluded that the board erred when it voted to allow members Mary McCann and Michele Aavang to participate remotely.

Doing so is significantly limited by the act, which exists to ensure that government meetings and deliberations are accessible to the public and conducted openly.

Both members voted with the 13-9 majority that decided against putting referendums on the March 15 ballot asking McHenry County voters if they wanted to consolidate their particular townships based on a map developed by a five-member task force.

Bureau Supervising Attorney Joshua Jones concluded that no revote or remedial action is needed because two votes would not change the outcome.

Anderson said Thursday morning that the ruling is a big victory despite that because it shines a light on what he called “improper voting” with less than two months to go before a primary election.
“I think this is a terrible reflection of the whole County Board,” Anderson said.

The Open Meetings Act limits elected officials from attending meetings by phone except in the case of personal illness or disability; employment or conducting of the public body’s business; or a family or other emergency.

It also mandates that the official give the body’s secretary advance notice except if doing so is impractical.

Jones concluded that McCann, who had to leave the Oct. 6 meeting early for vacation, did not have a valid reason under the law to participate remotely.

A majority approved allowing McCann to call in, over the objections of several members and Chairman Joe Gottemoller, who said the request was out of order. Aavang was out of town on a business trip – a legitimate reason under the law – but neither she nor McCann gave the required advance notice, according to the decision.

A group called McHenry County Citizens for Township Consolidation, with the blessing of several high-ranking county Republican officials, asked the County Board last March to put the consolidation initiatives on the ballot. It argued that consolidation would save taxpayers money and improve accountability.

Gottemoller convened a task force to come up with a plan and present it to the full board for a vote. But after three meetings and an open house, all of which came with significant pushback from township officials, the task force only could agree on two recommended consolidations. Gottemoller and others also soured on the idea when it was revealed that taxes would increase for property owners in the township with the lower of the two tax levies.

Townships under Illinois law have three statutory functions: to assess properties, maintain roads and provide assistance to constituents in need.

Although supporters call it the most direct and responsive form taxpayers have, critics call it an unnecessary anachronism rife with nepotism and patronage.
 
Anderson also is pursuing a complaint against Gottemoller and board member Anna May Miller through the McHenry County Ethics Commission over the vote. Anderson alleges that their votes against the consolidation referendums constituted a conflict of interest – Gottemoller, an attorney, is Grafton Township’s legal counsel, and Miller works for the Algonquin Township Highway Department, which is run by her husband, Robert.
 
The Public Access Bureau last year ruled that the County Board was not violating the law when it allowed member John Hammerand to participate by phone during the winter months, when he travels down south to get away from the cold for health reasons.

The Northwest Herald asked the bureau for a formal opinion because board members were reading the law differently from meeting to meeting, allowing him to participate one meeting but not the next.

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