WHEELING, ILLINOIS –(ECWd) –
On October 16th, the Village of Wheeling and its attorney, James V. Ferolo of the law firm Klein Thorpe Jenkins (“KTJ”), were confronted with a rundown of what we believe are their recent spree of Open Meetings Act (OMA) violations. The Village Board and its attorney decided in the past to take a very hostile approach towards public comment that included shouting at the public, threatening the public with the police when they didn’t like what the public was saying, denying the public the right to speak about certain topics, and generally trampling the OMA (and the US Constitution) in a myriad of ways. As reported, the Attorney General’s Office of the Public Access Counselor wrote to Village President Pat Horcher on October 13th informing the Village that an inquiry had been opened into the Village’s apparent OMA violations. The Village’s written response is due by October 20th. Video of the October 16th meeting can be found here:
We have seen this pattern before, where all of the bluster and vinegar that public officials aim at the public magically evaporates shortly after receiving official correspondence from the Attorney General’s office. In Wheeling, a clearly chastened Village Board did not engage in any further interruptions or bullying of the public on October 16th after having received notice from the AG’s office.
Compare and contrast the behavior of KTJ attorney James V. Ferolo prior to October 16th and then after the Village was ordered by the AG’s office to respond to a Request for Review pertaining to the Village’s apparent OMA violations. At the October 16th meeting, instead of interrupting the public, threatening people, berating citizens who came to address elected officials, and otherwise behaving in a caustic and off-the-wall manner (as he had done at previous board meetings), Ferolo was subdued and sedate on October 16th. This is another pattern that has held with the Klein Thorpe Jenkins law firm in the past, where once one of their attorneys is caught on video behaving horribly during an open public meeting, a conversation appears likely to be had at some level behind the scenes where the attorney then seems to be told to be quiet and to stop engaging in such inappropriate behavior going forward (at least when cameras are rolling).
Perhaps other members of the KTJ firm take these guys aside and tell them to knock it off or maybe some of the saner heads on the Board ask their own attorney to stop making a jackass of himself on video (that is posted to YouTube forever). Whatever happens out of public view, it remains remarkable that an attorney like Ferolo can completely flip his personality 180-degrees from one meeting to another…going from aggressively interrupting and bullying the public to meekly scribbling notes in his seat and no longer saying a word.
One concerning thing that the Village of Wheeling continues to do is to post what we argue is an illegal notice chilling public comment before a public meeting. This notice was projected again on October 16th on a large screen in the meeting room and was displayed until the meeting began; the public is forced to stare at this looming notice before the meeting starts. We argue this Orwellian slide projection on the large screen is contrary to the OMA in the following ways:
- No public body can decide or define what is “relevant” when it comes to what the public wants to speak about or otherwise restrict or limit what the public can say during public comment period. Therefore, the Village of Wheeling has no right to post a notice limiting the scope of public comment to what is “relevant to Village business.” This restriction is unreasonable and is over-broad, in that a public body that does not like being criticized can easily claim that whatever criticism they don’t like is “not relevant.”
- Requiring people to sign-in so that they would be allowed to speak does not comply with the OMA. Here, the Village is mandating that people must write their names on a sheet of paper before the meeting begins or they will not be allowed to speak. The public is also told their names will be called aloud. This is problematic in two ways for the Village: (1.) the US Constitution does not allow a public body to insist someone provide his or her name in order to be allowed to speak (as such a requirement has a chilling effect on people who fear retaliation if they give their names when coming to criticize a public body) and (2.) the OMA does not require someone to have signed-in before a meeting begins in order to be allowed to speak. What happens if someone didn’t know he or she had anything to say until the meeting started? There are occasions when someone hears something said during a meeting and only then has the motivation to speak. While a public body is allowed to create a speakers’ list so that an order for whose turn it is to speak next can be created, such a list does not require anyone’s name and that list should not be closed until the public comment period on the agenda has ended. The same list can be achieved with “Man in red shirt” or “Person in grey baseball cap” in place of requiring people to write their names and once all people who expressed an interest in speaking have had their say, the Village Board should ask if there is anyone who did not sign-up before the meeting who wishes to speak (before public comment period is ended for the night)..