After complaint, attorney general seeks details of Oak Park board meeting

Citizen complains that board violated Open Meetings. Village attorney defends session

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By Marty Stempniak

Staff Reporter

An Oak Park resident is accusing the village's board of trustees of breaking the law in November, when elected officials discussed a controversial development behind closed doors. The village's attorney says all aspects of the meeting were proper. Now the Illinois Attorney General's office has opened an inquiry into the matter.

The private meeting, Nov. 22 at village hall, reportedly discussed whether the village wanted to give a Chicago-based developer more time to build a 20-story hotel in downtown Oak Park. After deliberating behind closed doors, the board voted unanimously to grant the extension.

David Barsotti, a 14-year Oak Park resident, believes the village did not properly give the public notice about the meeting. He also argues the village board should not have discussed the extension in private.

As a result, Barsotti filed a complaint with the Illinois Attorney General's office on Dec. 19, asking the state to take a closer look at the November meeting.

"My biggest thing is, Oak Park champions open government and wants citizen involvement," said Barsotti, who has been a vocal critic of the hotel project. "I'm just asking that we all have a level playing field, and that they follow through with what they verbally committed to."

Barsotti says that he, along with village trustee candidate Lynn Kessen, did not see a notice for the closed-door meeting back in November. A phone call to Kessen last week was not returned, but Barsotti, who said he is not managing Kessen's campaign, noted that his complaint is unrelated to the April election.

The attorney general responded, Dec. 22, by asking the village for a recording of the closed meeting, the written minutes, and copies of any public notice or agenda that the village posted beforehand. The deadline was Tuesday, and after receiving and reviewing the information, the attorney general will either rule that no violation has occurred, act as a mediator to help resolve the issue, or issue a binding opinion telling the village to void the decision.

Cara Smith, public access counselor for the attorney general, said such a request for more information is typical. Since new open government laws went into effect Jan. 1 of 2010, her office has received 1,908 requests for review such as Barsotti's, and only four have resulted in binding opinions.

"Most of the time, there's not a willful violation of the law," Smith said. "Most of the time, it's a misunderstanding of the law, and when directed to do so, they correct it."

Village Attorney Ray Heise said last week that he was confident the village followed all state laws properly. Oak Park posted notice of the meeting on the village's website, and at the marquee near the front entrance at village hall. The board was allowed to discuss the matter in private, Heise said, because it involved "property disposition."

Oak Park has not yet sold the land under its public parking garage to Sertus Capital Partners, as the developer must first hit several benchmarks, such as obtaining financing to build the hotel and applying for and receiving building permits. Heise said it's common for governments to discuss amending sales contracts in private.

"The village has followed the statutory requirements in every respect and has appropriately used the exemption for discussing the sale of property on this occasion," he said.

Reader Comments

30 Comments - Add Your Comment

Comment Policy

Wrong  

Posted: January 7th, 2011 3:06 PM

Lisa, OMA actually says among several other things... (1) "The purchase or lease of real property for the use of the public body, including meetings held for the purpose of discussing whether a particular parcel should be acquired." 5 ILCS 120/2(c)(5). (2) "The setting of a price for sale or lease of property owned by the public body." 5 ILCS 120/2(c)(6).

lisa from Lisle  

Posted: January 7th, 2011 2:28 PM

OMA states they can hold closed sessions to discuss "setting a price" for sale of property. and that's it.

paul  

Posted: January 6th, 2011 11:41 AM

I'm really glad this is being looked at. I know it's a long shot, but it'd be spectacular if the extension would get voided. No way this hotel belongs in Oak Park, especially not funded by tax dollars.

john murtagh from Oak Park  

Posted: January 6th, 2011 12:10 AM

How can so many criticize an OP resident for having a viewpoint on a controversial issue -- the delayed hotel, expressing himself publicly and intelligently on local issues, show a willingness to participate in village election, and querying the possible violation of the public meeting act in a village where only 17% of registered voter bothered to vote in last year's local elections? The guy should be a candidate for an Oak Park Citizen Action award.

Dan  

Posted: January 2nd, 2011 12:19 PM

In any event, the village attorney's own comment suggests that the complaint is not frivolous. He said the matter involved the "disposition of property," but the exception to the open meeting requirement involving property references only the acquisition of property, not its sale. Moreover, the deal with Sertus was negotiated and executed long ago. The issue here was allowing Sertus to avoid its contractual obligations to the village, not "property disposition."

A Different Ken from Oak Park  

Posted: January 2nd, 2011 12:00 PM

The AG does not need to follow-up asking for more information as Ken from below incorrectly claims and believes. They only ask for more information when the claim seems to have some merit and they cannot decide based on the claim itself.

Art from Oak Park  

Posted: January 2nd, 2011 9:22 AM

Agree with Ken. David's so worried about money mismanagement he forces the AG's office to spend taxpayer money investigating a ridiculous claim he knows has no merit but will get him and his candidate free exposure.

Ken from Oak Park  

Posted: January 1st, 2011 10:31 PM

Hey, Emmitt- you are absolutely incorrect. The Attorney General's office is obligated to investigate even the most ridiculous, inane charges under the current Open Meetings Act. So the fact that the Attorney General is following up per standard procedure says absolutely nothing re: the merit of the charges. Incidentally, anyone who knows Ray Heise or Teri Powell or has ever taken the time to attend a Board Meeting knows how seriously they take the requirements of the Act. This is all political.

Emmitt Donohue  

Posted: January 1st, 2011 9:52 PM

It is funny to see that those who are most afraid of the truth are the most vicious in their comments. What is the Board trying to hide? The Village has a contract with Sertus to sell the garage for $1, so are they trying to sell the garage twice? The AG would not request more information unless they felt there was merit in the complaint regardless of one's political views. It seems to me that the Village broke the law, but the AG will ultimately decide if any law was broken.

Sidney Wickes from Oak Park  

Posted: January 1st, 2011 2:42 PM

@B. Jackson-- Mr. Barsotti is indeed managing the campaign of Lynn Kessen for Village Trustee. It's highly unlikely that the AG will find merit in this complaint, since Mr. Barsotti and Ms. Kessen both commented at an open meeting concerning the issue. The law allows for Executive session. The Barsotti / Kessen campaign will be a one-issue rant on the supposed nexus between the TIF and everything that is wrong with Oak Park. That's all Barsotti is about. That's all his puppet Kessen will say.

J from Oak Park  

Posted: December 31st, 2010 8:42 PM

@Dan - I totally agree with you as relates to the charges. His supposed political involvement is irrelevant to the merits of the charges and I couldn't care less one way or the other. But Charles Johnson's original question was dealing with the story as written and a questions of the reporters responsibility. From that standpoint, for the reasons I stated, I think he raises a good question.

Dan  

Posted: December 31st, 2010 7:49 PM

J- My point is that even if Barsotti is involved in the campaign of a trustee candidate, that would not mean he has done anything wrong, and it would tell us nothing about the validiity of his complaint. The AG's investigation will tell us that. I think we should be more interested in the outcome of the investigation than in Barsotti's motivations. If it turns out that the board has violaed the law, then kudos to Mr. Barsotti for bringing it to light.

J from Oak Park  

Posted: December 31st, 2010 7:21 PM

@Dan - I have no ideas what Mr. Barsotti does in his spare time but I don't understand your response. If all that is important is the complaint rather than his potential motivation, then why include a quote from him presenting his motivation. Secondly, that seems a double standard given Mr. Stempniak's other article about David Kindler's protest where his past position as Parks Board Pres warranted the headline. Maybe it was to present context, as should happen here IF the claims below are true

Dan  

Posted: December 31st, 2010 7:18 PM

B. Jackson- By Chicago-style stunt, are you referring to the board's apparent violation of the law?

B. Jackson from Oak Park  

Posted: December 31st, 2010 4:43 PM

I just stumbled across this story and the comments. I think it would be very interesting to know if this man is running a campaign of a candidate. I'm a very independent voter, and I hope this isn't true. But if it is, is has a certain Chicago-style political stunt smell to it.

Dan  

Posted: December 31st, 2010 2:43 PM

Charles. Not sure why that would be important. Even if true, there would be nothing wrong in Barsotti filing a complaint with the AG if he has a good faith basis for believing the board violated the law. The AG will independently determine whether it believes the board violated the open meetings act, and Barsotti's motivations will have nothing to do with that determination.Based on the village attorney's statement, it appears at least that there is a viable claim that the board is in violation.

Charles Johnson from Oak Park  

Posted: December 31st, 2010 1:38 PM

Question for the Staff Reporter: Can you determine if Mr. Barsotti is helping manage the campaign of a trustee candidate as stated below? As a former journalist, I would consider that to be an important piece of information in getting a complete picture of this story and understanding the motivations behind this action. Thank you.

Dan from Oak Park  

Posted: December 30th, 2010 10:48 PM

Under the open meetings act, there is a presumption that village board meetings should be open. The exception invoked by the village attorney is: "The purchase or lease of real property for the use of the public body, including meetings held for the purpose of discussing whether a particular parcel should be acquired." Exceptions are to be strictly construed in favor of open meetings. The issue here is not the acquisition of property by the village. Looks like the village might lose.

Dan from Oak Park  

Posted: December 30th, 2010 9:17 PM

And setting legality aside, why wouldn't you want to know that the Lake/Forest developer is having trouble meeting its obligations to the village (i.e., you and me) and perhaps re-think the advisability of the project?

Dan from Oak Park  

Posted: December 30th, 2010 9:14 PM

Well Stacy, if you don't want to know what your village government is doing, how can you possibly know that it is acting for and on your behalf? And how can you or Jeff know that the board has acted legally based on this article. It is to be expected that the village attorney will claim that the board acted legally. But for you and Jeff to reach a conclusion before the AG conducts its investigation is a bit presumptuous

Stacy from Forest Park  

Posted: December 30th, 2010 4:37 PM

There is a difference between an informed public and an interfering public. The reason it takes Oak Park so much longer than any other municipality to get ANYTHING accomplished (and it always costs more too) is because there are far too many cooks in the kitchen. It's one thing to know the menu but it whole other thing to demand to cook the fare. The elected leaders are just that, elected. If they fail you, then vote for someone new the next time around. In the meantime, allow them an opportunity to do their job. Based upon this article, there was no illegal meeting being held %u2013 surely you don't want the board discussing bargaining strategies out in the open? Anyone with even a slight amount of business sense knows that! The Village Board needs to stop listening to all you whiney nosey amateur chefs and just get down to doing the business of the village for and on behalf of all the people, not just the loudest ones.

uh huh from Oak Park  

Posted: December 30th, 2010 4:20 PM

WJ, if you're going to allow people to smear others in the comments section, you should at least require that they provide their full name and what VMA candidate that they are affiliated with.

Enuf is Enuf from Oak Park  

Posted: December 30th, 2010 3:14 PM

I would like to commend Mr. Barsotti for his diligence in keeping the village accountable. I recall reading the posted agenda for the board special meeting on Nov. 22, 2010, and although there was an agenda item concerning two amendments for the redevelopment agreement with Lake Street Investors, there was no accompanying information. I was alarmed later to find out the amendments involved a 23-month extension for construction completion, and the only discussion was in a closed session. Why?

Jeff from Oak Park  

Posted: December 30th, 2010 3:09 PM

I will bet cold hard cash that the AG will find this complaint without merit and dismiss it. As far as the Complainant is concerned and his local political views go... Isn't he involved in the management of a Trustee candidate's campaign???? This smells of politics and a feeble attempt to give justification for his candidate's run by manufacturing an issue when there is none. So much for altruism and high standards.

Jason from Oak Park  

Posted: December 30th, 2010 2:07 PM

Once again Oak Park feels it is above the law. Sertus will not renegotiate the contract when they are set to purchase the garage for $1 sometime in the future after the real estate market rebounds. Seriously, one should question the Board's and Heise's business acumen to think that Sertus would renegotiate such a deal.

John McCarthy from Chicago, Illinois  

Posted: December 30th, 2010 2:04 PM

I will definitely be passing this article along to my 3rd ward alderman, Marge Paul, in Berwyn. I will also pass this along to the Independent Voters of Berwyn offices. The Vrdolyak/Dominick criminal Cicero combine that once again controls Berwyn does everything behind closed doors. Time to bring in the Attorney General and shed some much needed light.

John from Oak Park  

Posted: December 30th, 2010 2:04 PM

Frankly, I`m happy to hear that someone is paying attention. I, too, have had problems in the past trying to get information from the Village Board. So bravo, Mr Barsotti. Government always works better when elected officials are reminded that the citizens are interested and involved. This development is big and costly and the process should be open and transparent.

Christine Vernon from Oak Park, IL  

Posted: December 30th, 2010 1:51 PM

David Barsotti is an intelligent person working for good government. He is holding the standard operating procedures of the Village Board to the law and this is good. We are better off for his vigilance. Legal counsel retained at great expense for OP trustees needs to insure that they observe open meetings laws, otherwise where is the professionalism? One party rule can sometimes give the appearance of not being democratic. Decisions of the Board should be able to stand up to scruntiny.

Mike from oak park  

Posted: December 30th, 2010 1:42 PM

Again....another perosn who has to much time on his hand and is worried about what others are doing.....get a hobbie.

Jeff from Oak Park  

Posted: December 30th, 2010 12:57 PM

Here we go again. This is much ado about nothing. Whenever someone doesn't like a Village decision they will go to whatever length to stop or delay any project. This reminds me of the "historic" rotting two flat in the field debate that delayed the hospital expansion. I hope the AG is quick to review and dispose of this complaint. What a waste of time, all because of this serial complainer. Sad.

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