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State Government

Illinois OMA reform inspired by Oakwood Hills controversy moving forward

The proposed Open Meetings Act improvement inspired by the debacle surrounding the Oakwood Hills power plant has found new life in the final week of the spring legislative session.

House Bill 175, which would allow people to report possible violations of the act within 60 days of discovery, rather than 60 days from the meeting in question, will be heard Wednesday afternoon by the Senate Executive Committee. Despite clearing the Illinois House without a single opposing vote, it had been stuck in an Executive subcommittee for the past month, which is typically a bad sign indicating that lawmakers want a bill to die.

But Senate sponsor Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington, said that Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, wanted the bill moved forward. Approval in committee would send the bill to the full Senate for a vote.

Duffy credited the "hard work and diligence" of House bill author David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, for getting it moved out of subcommittee. Both lawmakers' districts include Oakwood Hills.

“I'm optimistic about the success of the bill at this point," Duffy said.

McSweeney filed the legislation in response to what was potentially an illegal July 2013 meeting by the Oakwood Hills Village Board in which members privately discussed the monetary windfall that would come from building 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 contain an exemption that covers such a discussion.

But the questionable discussion 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. A complaint could not be filed with the attorney general’s public access counselor, who has binding authority to enforce open-government laws and impose corrective action on violators, because the window under current law of 60 days from the actual meeting had long since passed.

That time limit has hampered other requests to review questionable meetings. 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 counselor declined to investigate, again citing the lapsing of the 60-day review period.

McSweeney’s bill includes a two-year statute of limitations. It also contains language to deter overly broad or politically-motivated nuisance requests.

Because the language would take effect immediately upon becoming law, the vote threshold increases if the Senate does not vote on it before the May 31 end of session. After that, the number of needed votes increases from simple majority to a three-fifths supermajority, or 36 of 59 Senators.

The bill likely will face resistance by local governments’ powerful lobbying groups. The groups, which are funded predominantly by dues paid with taxpayer dollars, historically have been averse to bills strengthening the state’s open-government laws and supportive of laws curtailing them. The Illinois Municipal League opposes the legislation, and other lobbying groups are watching it.

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