The Village of Oak Park responded last week, about a month after the Illinois Attorney General's Office accused it of violating the state's Open Meetings Act.
Village Attorney Ray Heise, in a 12-page letter, said he believes the attorney general came to the conclusion last month based on "limited and incomplete documentation," along with "unreasonably narrow interpretations" of the law.
Heise said in the letter that the attorney general got the facts wrong, in accusing the village of improperly convening the meeting. He said village hall wants to keep in contact with the attorney general's office to avoid similar situations in the future, and he said the nonbinding ruling will be a "substantial detriment" to the village and its citizens in future uses of closed meetings.
In a phone interview Monday, Heise said the response letter from the village wasn't required. But he felt a need to address the "misperceptions" created by the attorney general's ruling.
"Silence assumes agreement," he said, "so I think the village was obligated to respond."
The closed meeting, held Nov. 22 at village hall, was to discuss whether officials wanted to give a Chicago-based developer more time to build a 20-story hotel in downtown Oak Park. There were also discussions of requiring the developer to fund construction of a surface parking lot at the corner of Lake and Forest in exchange for the extension.
Oak Parker David 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 said in March that 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, and that the village did not discuss setting a price for selling the land under its public garage during that meeting, as village hall claimed.
In his April 15 letter and a phone interview, Heise vociferously defended the village for holding the closed-doors meeting. He said Oak Park clearly voted publicly to go into the private meeting, as required by law.
The attorney general claimed that talking about the extension in private didn't fit under the category of setting a price for the sale of land, which government bodies are allowed to discuss privately. But Heise said the extension was barely discussed, and the meat of the conversation was about a $229,000 credit Oak Park was seeking from the developer — a discount on the village's costs to pay for a new parking garage, in exchange for the developer putting down a surface parking lot.
Heise believes that short staffing in the Attorney General's Office resulted in not allowing them to fully study the Nov. 22 meeting.
"I think it's very difficult, given the enormous responsibility that the attorney general has and the limited staff and time they have to devote to each of these," Heise said.
An email to an attorney general spokeswoman Monday was not answered by late Tuesday morning.
Barsotti, a vocal opponent of the proposed hotel, said Oak Park can say what it wants, but the attorney general has the final say, and the village should listen. He believes that having the discussion in public would not have hurt negotiations. He thinks board members who campaigned on a platform of transparency should keep their word and limit private meetings.
"Were those just campaign slogans to make it sound good, or are they actually going to really make government transparent so that we see what's going on?" he said.
In an email Tuesday, Trustee Ray Johnson said he wants Oak Park to listen to the attorney general and be more careful before meeting privately in the future.
"The AG makes it clear that, based on their review, the consideration we discussed did not rise to the level of an appropriate executive session," he said. "I am fully supportive of bringing a tighter focus to our process so we stay within both the spirit and intent of the [Open Meetings Act]."