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.