Attorney general: Oak Park board violated Open Meetings Act

Village must release transcript of meeting; Pope defends village

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By Marty Stempniak

Staff Reporter

Click here to see the letter from the Illinois attorney general's office.

The Oak Park Village Board of Trustees did, in fact, violate the state's Open Meetings Act during a closed-doors meeting last November, the Illinois Attorney General's Office concluded in a ruling released Friday. As a result, the village needs to release a transcript of the gathering.

David Barsotti, the longtime resident of the village and critic of village hall who filed the original complaint, said he was pleased with the outcome. On the other side, Village President David Pope said Friday that the Attorney General's Office was mistaken in one of its conclusions and the village needed clarification of another aspect of the ruling before he could respond.

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

Barsotti argued the village board should not have discussed the decision in closed session. So he filed a complaint with the attorney general on Dec. 19, asking the state to take a closer look at the November meeting.

The attorney general believes Oak Park "failed" to hold an open meeting first and take a public vote before going into the closed session, as required by state law. Secondly, the village did not discuss setting a price for selling the land under its public garage during that meeting, as village hall claimed.

"The board did not discuss alternative 'prices' or forms of consideration to present to the developer, and, therefore, the board's discussion went beyond the 'setting of a price for the sale or lease of property,' as authorized by the Open Meetings Act," the attorney general's letter reads.

Amanda Lundeen, the assistant public access counselor for the attorney general, who signed the letter, did not return a call seeking comment. Village Attorney Ray Heise was out of the office late Friday and Monday. But in December, he maintained that the village had "followed the statutory requirements in every respect" when holding the closed meeting.

Pope, who didn't attend the November meeting, said Friday that the Attorney General's Office was mistaken in its ruling. After perusing the minutes from the meeting, he said the village did take a vote in public before going into executive session, as he said the board has done consistently since he joined it in 2003. Pope said Lundeen "must have overlooked the basic facts in her response," on that part of the ruling.

As far as whether discussing the extension was exempt from the Open Meetings Act, Pope said the village needed to talk to Lundeen first to better understand her position before commenting on that part of the decision.

"It's clear as day that she got it wrong regarding the vote to go into executive session. That is undeniable," he said. "The discussion that Ray [Heise] will have with her as a follow-up to this will determine whether she also got it wrong regarding the substantive question that she has raised in this finding."

Village Clerk Teresa Powell said Monday she was waiting to confer with the village attorney before releasing the transcript of the meeting.

Maura Possley, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office, said on Friday, "We stand by our letter." She said there's no appeal process for Oak Park to go through, as the attorney general's decision is usually the final word.

The attorney general disagreed with two other accusations made by Barsotti — that the board failed to give proper notice of the meeting and that trustees took "final action" on the extension behind closed doors.

Reached Friday, Barsotti, a vocal opponent of the hotel project, said he was pleased with the outcome, as it addressed the "crux" of his argument. He worries that Nov. 22 wasn't the only time the village board violated the Open Meetings Act.

"I do think it is indicative of a larger problem," he said. "I don't think this is just an anomaly."

Trustee John Hedges, who acted as village president during the November meeting in Pope's absence, disagreed that this was an ongoing problem. He thought the meeting seemed to follow all the rules, but village hall will be more careful with its closed gatherings in the future.

"Anytime this comes up, it's probably an opportunity to stop and say, 'OK, is everything we're doing the way we want to govern?'" he said. "We try to be as transparent as possible, but if we need to take another look at what we're doing, that's fine, too."

Trustee Jon Hale said Oak Park may disagree over the nitty-gritty details of the November meeting, but, ultimately, should probably just listen.

"If the attorney general thinks we violated the Open Meetings Act, then we certainly should comply with their ruling and make sure that, in the future, the meetings are open when it's appropriate and closed only when it's really appropriate," he said.

Trustee Colette Lueck said Oak Park isn't trying to deliberately hide anything. The reality is that village hall deals with a lot of labor unions and developers, who prefer to hold negotiations in confidence.

"That goes against my nature, but that is how the world works," she said. "And I'm not going to be able to change how unions and developers negotiate just because I wish they would do it differently."


  Open Meetings Act Request for Review

Wednesday Journal has redacted David Barsotti's e-mail address from this document.

Reader Comments

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Comment Policy

Paul from Oak Park  

Posted: March 15th, 2011 11:44 AM

I think congratulations are in order for David Barsotti with his win today with the Illinois Attorney General ruling against the Village. David your dedication to the truth and the rule of law are truly inspiring. Thank you.

OP Resident  

Posted: March 15th, 2011 10:31 AM

Celebrate "Sunshine Week"!

OP Resident  

Posted: March 14th, 2011 3:23 AM

Appeal the decision but under no circumstances should Pope and Heise be allowed to initiate litigation. They can write a letter, make a phone call,or ask for a hearing; but that's it! No billing from outside counsel. Heise made the call. Let him defend his decision. We're are seeing a disturbing pattern by our Village President re: a lack of transperancy. His refusal to allow Distict 200 to just examine the TIF books has resulted in taxpayers being on the hook for more than $150K in legal bills.

OP Resident  

Posted: March 12th, 2011 8:42 PM

Who's in charge of circling the wagons at Village Hall?


Posted: March 12th, 2011 6:56 PM

I think the AG ought to look into the dealings her father, Speaker Mike Madigan, makes and see how much transparency is there. There's nothing here folks. More banter for nothing. What qualifies an "open meeting"? A camera?

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: March 12th, 2011 5:56 PM

David Barsotti - not always in agreement with your issue choices, but I congratulate you on your tenacity and clear thinking. You are now the Star of Transparent Governing!

epic lulz from OP  

Posted: March 12th, 2011 5:47 PM

In any case, I'm happy to see David Pope take on the IL AG, and doubly happy to see that he is doing so with his typical insulting and blustering arrogance. Anything that raises the level of interest of the State's head law enforcement officer in the secretive internal workings of our sleepy little Village is a Good Thing (tm).

epic lulz from OP  

Posted: March 12th, 2011 5:46 PM

It looks like either David Pope didn't bother to actually read the AG's ruling, didn't comprehend it, or was misquoted by the WJ. The ruling clearly states that the Village Board did take a vote before going into executive session, but that it took the vote in private, which is in violation of the Open Meetings Act.


Posted: March 12th, 2011 4:48 PM

Even tho you trust Teresa, she probabably would not do that or be permitted to do that. It would probably take a lawsuit. I think energies should be directed at prospective compliance. And I'm not sure ALL board members are culpable. It takes only a majority of a quorum to move into executive session, right?

OP Resident  

Posted: March 12th, 2011 4:30 PM

I understand that DJ. But I'm talking about the board discussing matters that are not protected. Perhaps Village Clerk Powell could review the minutes & release a summary of the topics that were addressed. I trust her. She doesn't seem to be part of the illegal actions that it looks like have been going on out of the public's view. Every current trustee campaigned on the promise that Village business would be conducted in a fair and open process. We've seen now that not one honored that pledge.


Posted: March 12th, 2011 4:15 PM

If the meetings were in executive session in accordance with the law, then, no, we won't be able to see the transcripts.

OP Resident  

Posted: March 12th, 2011 3:55 PM

Why is David Pope opposed to making public the transcript of the November 22, 2010 meeting? What happened to his campaign promise of transparency? Will citizens be allowed to see transcripts of all the Village Board's closed door meetings? Look for Village Hall to fight any requests regarding the release of any documents that they fear may incriminate our trustees & their village manager. Attempts at true reform of the Illinois FOIA were gutted by our own Don Harmon. Keep on eye on him.


Posted: March 12th, 2011 10:32 AM

I am with you Benjamin. The reason is fairly obvious in this case, however. The 20-story hotel was a controvesial subject in the first place. A vote to extend the time-table under the developer's contract would also be controversial. So the board wanted to avoid the controversy. Of course, that is not a sufficient reason to go into executive session, either under the law or under democratic principles.

Benjamin Hill from Oak Park  

Posted: March 12th, 2011 9:59 AM

I'm sure there are times when some discussions should be in private, like salaries. However, it always astounds me when public servants, who work for us!, insist on keeping information from the public. Federal, state and local officials - I don't get it.


Posted: March 12th, 2011 9:39 AM

@ComeOn. Agreed. I don't understand Pope's reaction. Rather than publicly disagreeing with the AG, why didn't he say something like, "Our counsel interpreted the statute and the facts differently, but, going forward, we will make sure that the vote to go into executive session is done in a properly noticed public metting, and that we only go into executive session when clearly authorized under the law, and, even then, only when truly necessary and not against the public interest"?

OP is a Troll (not the Sheen kind)  

Posted: March 12th, 2011 8:32 AM

Best way to handle a troll is to not feed it.

Come On from Oak Park  

Posted: March 12th, 2011 7:20 AM

There's never been any indication that executive sessions scheduled for Room 130 are preceded by a public meeting. There's a good and valid reason for this particular requirement of the Open Meeting act and that is to give trustees a chance to publicly question the appropriateness of going into closed session...much the same way that Hedges recently questioned use of the consent agenda. BTW, it should be a roll call vote...


Posted: March 12th, 2011 3:24 AM

John Murtagh, Do you feel better? Ha Ha. Why dont you use your time to improve YOUR own life?


Posted: March 11th, 2011 11:27 PM

Pope also misunderstands the AG's findings. Yes, the board did take a vote to go into executive session. But, according to the AG, the vote was not taken in a properly noticed public meeting. And he's out there claiming that the AG is just flat wrong before even consulting with counsel. It's arrogane and poor judgment. I agree with Murtagh. Even if Pope thinks that the board is technically in the right, why not err in favor of transparency.

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: March 11th, 2011 11:03 PM

The height of arrogance is slamming the AG when most of your own residents thought the chatty little secret meetings had gone too far. Really, the board and its members can be wrong at times. Really.

OP Resident  

Posted: March 11th, 2011 10:24 PM

More bad advice from the Village Attorney. Isn't time for Mr. Heise to retire?

Enuf is Enuf from Oak Park  

Posted: March 11th, 2011 10:22 PM

Pope is missing the point, as usual. Contrary to his repeated claims to the contrary, the village board is less than open and transparent. Instead of trying to continue the legal debate with the AG, he should take a deep breath, and heed the lesson of serving the public, not excluding them. I am looking forward to reviewing the meeting transcripts.


Posted: March 11th, 2011 9:20 PM

I've given up on Oak Park. The Village of Oak Park always wins. I'll bet that Oak Park appeals the attorney general's decision. The minutes will never ever be release to the public. You read it here first!!!!


Posted: March 11th, 2011 7:24 PM

However this matter ultimately turns out, it is clear that Mr. Barsotti's complaint was not frivolous, as some of his detractors claimed.

epic lulz from OP  

Posted: March 11th, 2011 6:14 PM

Good to see that one can successfully fight City, er, Village Hall. Mr. Barsotti has my congrats.

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