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City spent $2K to fight complaints

Richard Burton
Richard Burton

Marseilles' city attorney said earlier this month the city racked up costs fighting allegations it violated the state's open meetings law "for virtually no result."

On Feb. 5, the attorney general's office ruled the City Council violated state law in November when the mayor and all four council members signed a letter announcing the city's decision to end its membership with the local chamber of commerce.

That decision, the attorney general said, should have been made in a public meeting. The agency requested the council reconsider and vote on the issue at a public meeting.

The Times sought attorney bills during the two months the city was dealing with the complaints. The city spent slightly more than $2,000 on the issues. A few items on the bills mixed the open meetings issues with other matters.

The attorney general's ruling was in response to complaints filed by The Times and the Illinois River Area Chamber of Commerce in Marseilles.

At a city meeting shortly afterward, city attorney Richard Burton differed with the attorney general.

"I've got to tell you between the city and the state of Illinois and issuing the seven-page opinion, over a period of a month or so there's been thousands of dollars spent for virtually no result," Burton told the council.

According to the bills, Burton spent about a dozen hours dealing with the complaints.

The Times was unable to obtain the costs associated with the attorney general's work on the complaints; attorneys in the office are on staff and don't charge billable hours.

Neither The Times nor the chamber of commerce used the services of attorneys in filing the complaints. The newspaper spent no more than two hours in filing its complaint and responding to the city's brief.

The chamber said it spent about an hour preparing its complaint, said Ron Dickerson, the group's vice chairman.

Asked about Burton's comments, Dickerson said, "If they were more professional with these issues, they would be much better off."

Ben Silver, an attorney with the Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst, said there was a simple way the city could have avoided the legal costs.

"Follow the law," he said. "If they had not taken action behind closed doors, not a penny would have been spent."

In his response to the open meetings complaints, Burton said the letter about the chamber was advisory, not a final action. But the attorney general pointed out the letter referred to "our decision."

Asked about Burton's arguments, Silver said attorneys in such situations take their cues from governmental clients.

"If a government body is looking for a way to keep things closed, a good attorney will find a way to do it," he said.

Burton didn't return a message for comment.

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