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