Local Government

Illinois Open Meetings Act reform bill inspired by Oakwood Hills debacle passes House

An Open Meetings Act reform bill inspired by the debacle surrounding a proposed Oakwood Hills power plant is headed to the Illinois Senate after unanimously clearing the House.

House Bill 175, written by Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, will 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. It passed the House early Thursday afternoon on a 110-0 vote.

“I think it’s a great bill, and it’s got bipartisan support,” McSweeney said. “To pass a meaningful bill like this is good news for transparency and for my constituents.”

Sen. Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington, is the bill’s chief sponsor in the Senate – both McSweeney’s and Duffy’s districts include Oakwood Hills.

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.

However, the meeting was not public knowledge until a year later, when it was discovered by the attorney hired by village residents who were opposed to the now-scuttled project. The meeting could not be submitted to the attorney general’s public access counselor, who has authority to enforce open-government laws and impose corrective action on violators, because the 60-day window under the current legislation had long passed.

The time limit has hampered other requests to investigate violators. The Northwest Herald in 2013 requested a review of a number of possible Open Meetings Act violations by the Prairie Grove School District 46 board, but the public access counselor declined to investigate, again citing the lapsing of the 60-day review period.

McSweeney’s bill includes some limitations to deter overly broad or politically motivated nuisance requests. It includes a two-year 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.

Another bill aimed at strengthening the Open Meetings Act is poised for a House vote.
House Bill 248, filed by Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Glen Carbon, empowers judges to nullify any final action taken by a public body that violates the act, not just votes taken illegally in closed session. It cleared committee Wednesday on an 11-0 vote.

About this series

"No More Excuses" is the Northwest Herald's ongoing series regarding the public's right to know in Illinois.

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