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Government should keep public in, not out

 
THE ISSUE: At odds over meetings law
OUR VIEW: Local governments should strive to keep doors open
 
Government works for the people.
In that spirit, closing the doors on a public meeting should be a local government's last resort, used only when necessary.
Governments are allowed to go behind closed doors for items deemed personal, such as collective bargaining, or the hiring or firing of employees; or for items that pertain to litigation or real estate acquisitions.
With that said, local governments should not abuse this ability. Their mindset should be to share as much with the open public as possible.
When too much is left in the dark, the public is not allowed to engage in how decisions are made, which is essential to democracy.
Recently, The Times had experts question the use of closed meetings in two instances.
Earlier this month, the city councils in La Salle, Peru, Spring Valley and Oglesby each conducted closed meetings to talk about pooling their police resources, officials confirmed.
The city councils cited exemptions to the open meetings law, including those to discuss personnel, collective bargaining and litigation.
Jim Andreoni, attorney for Spring Valley and Oglesby, said the consolidation talks are "very preliminary" and could involve "sensitivity" in the communities.
As for personnel exceptions, he said there were concerns about morale and staffing. He said the real estate exception is applicable because the four departments may need to find a site for a regional building.
To use the real estate exception, La Salle's attorney added the city didn't necessarily have to be looking for a specific type of property. And the city didn't need to be currently negotiating with unions to assert the collective bargaining exception.
"The police officers are all in a union. This definitely relates to collective bargaining," he said.
This line of thinking goes against the spirit of the Open Meetings Act. 
It's reasonable to keep information on specific employees from a public meeting. This info could be detrimental to an employee getting their next job, for example. Perhaps personal information talked about behind closed doors is unconfirmed as well.
Additionally, it's reasonable for government bodies not to reveal their next move in a litigation case (admitting something that can be used against them), or what specific properties they are looking at to buy (which could tip off another buyer, or bump up the sale price, etc.)
When the aforementioned exceptions are used to talk about big picture ideas, such as a consolidation of police services, however, it becomes questionable, especially when the overall public has a stake.
Don Craven, an attorney for the Illinois Press Association, said the city councils improperly asserted exemptions to the Open Meetings Act. He said morale and staffing were no reasons to close a meeting.
"Raising the sales tax could affect staffing and morale. Can they discuss that in executive session?"
The La Salle County Board twice closed its doors from the public over the last couple weeks, voting afterward whether to take a loan to pay a contractor.

County Board Chairman Jerry Hicks, D-Marseilles, said there was a probability the contractor could sue after not being paid in time. He said the contractor had not threatened a lawsuit.

Craven said the board has to face a threat of a lawsuit or likely face litigation to close its doors.
"Everything a government does or doesn't do could result in litigation," he said.
Hypothetically, many broad topics can be connected to collective bargaining, litigation or real estate. Playing fast and loose with these rules can save a government from having a tough conversation in public, but one the public has a right to hear and participate in.
Ultimately, governments should not seek their attorney's advice to get behind closed doors, but instead ask how they can keep them open. All elected officials are required to take training on the Open Meetings Act, so they have a general sense of what should not be said in open session. Attorneys can navigate them through difficult talks.
The more open a government is, the more it serves the people who elected it.
In November, The Times questioned the actions of a pair of other governments and their decision to close meetings. And we came to the same conclusion.
The public’s business should be done in public. Period.

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