Illinois Attorney General rules Winnebago County committees violated Open Meetings Act

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WINNEBAGO COUNTY (WREX) — The Illinois Attorney General’s Office has determined several Winnebago County board members violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act (OMA) by discussing details of a proposed 911 consolidation agreement during closed session.

The ruling comes more than three months after 13 Investigates asked the attorney general’s Public Access Bureau to review the discussion that took place during the closed session.

On May 2, a combined meeting of the Finance Committee and Operations and Administrative Committee went into closed session to discuss an agenda item titled “911 Agreement with Municipalities.”

Winnebago County State’s Attorney Marilyn Hite Ross advised the board to discuss the matter in closed session due to “pending litigation.” Pending litigation is one of 24 exceptions to OMA, which allow public bodies the ability to discuss certain matters behind closed doors.

The specific pending litigation referenced by the state’s attorney was not made available to the media on the night of the closed session, but multiple county board members told 13 Investigates it was a lawsuit previously filed by Sheriff Gary Caruana against the county board.

13 Investigates argued to the attorney general’s office that any discussion regarding the 911 agreement with municipalities was irrelevant to the lawsuit filed by the sheriff and therefore the exception was invalid and the closed session was in violation of OMA.

Finance Committee Chairman Jaime Salgado disagreed.  He told the Rockford Register Star on May 12, “We’re in pending litigation and we went into closed session and that’s about it. I don’t know what the complaint is about. If [WREX] filed a complaint, they have the right to file a complaint. We’ll let the process do its thing.”

Board member Paul Arena agreed, telling 13 Investigates on May 16, “In that moment, I’m acting on faith. I’m trusting that my attorney has my best interest and agreed to go into closed session.”

Operations and Administrative Committee Chairman Keith McDonald was concerned the meeting was not handled properly, telling the Register Star on May 12, “I do think the first several minutes of the closed session was done properly, but the rest was not.”

After 13 Investigates’ request for review, the AG’s office asked the state’s attorney’s office to provide a written response to the station’s allegations and to “explain whether the Committees discussed a 911 agreement during the May 2, 2019 closed session.”

In its response, the state’s attorney’s office argued the following:

“It was the contention of the State’s Attorney, who was present at the joint committee meeting, that discussion of the 911 issue was a proper topic for closed session since it was a topic included in the lawsuit filed by the sheriff against the County Board.  It is, therefore, the contention of the joint committee chairs that the discussion of the 911 topic with their attorney in closed session was proper and, therefore, was not a violation of the OMA.”

The Illinois attorney general’s office disagreed.  A determination letter was sent to both the state’s attorney’s office and 13 Investigates on Thursday.  It concluded:

“Because OMA requires that the closed session exceptions are to be ‘strictly construed, extending only to subjects within their scope,’ this office concludes that the Committees’ closed session discussion of a ‘911 Agreement with Municipalities’ was not authorized by Section 2(c)(11) of OMA.”

The decision asks the committees to “vote to disclose” both the closed meeting minutes and the verbatim recording pertaining to any discussion of the 911 agreement in the closed session.  They are then asked to provide 13 Investigates with copies of both.

13 Investigates has reached out to the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s Office for comment and we will update this story if we get a response.

You can read the entire determination letter from the Office of the Attorney General below.

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