Coles Co. (ECWd) -
Over the years we hear complaints that our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests are nothing but fishing missions and do nothing but cost the public bodies money to respond. What most of those naysayers fail to understand, is each and every FOIA we submit is done for a purpose related to information we have that points to those public bodies not following the law.
In many cases, simply asking for the information wakes them up to the fact what they had been doing was not consistent with the law. For example, our pointing out that the Coles County Board meeting agenda was not on the website nor available to the public 48 continuous hours led to them placing all the agendas on their web page. That is a proactive approach to problems identified. We thank them for doing the right thing.
I recently requested the mandated items pertaining to the holding of a special meetings by the Coles County Board. Those requested items are listed below:
- A copy of written request addressed to the clerk of the board for a special meeting of the county board that reflects one-third of the members of the board making said request for a special meeting as required by law.
- Copy of written notice to each member of the board informing them a special meeting has been called by one-third of the members of the board.
- Copy of the notice of such meeting published in the newspaper as required by law.
What many County Boards don't know is that there are specific statutes pertaining their duties and obligations when it comes to having a special meeting. These specific obligations are above and beyond those required by the Open Meetings Act. Those obligations can be viewed at this link from the Counties Code.
What I requested was for the last three special meetings held by the County Board. Turns out, the Coles County Board in place during those last three meetings violated the law and held those meetings without the proper number of written requests, notice to other board members, and publication in the paper. Interestingly they indirectly sold the former States Attorney under the bus and blamed him.
The response I got back was encouraging, yet disappointing. We appreciate that our request brought awareness to the current County Board as it relates to their duties if they want to hold a special meeting, however, we must ask, why didn't they already know that?
"The last three special meetings of the County Board held November 26, 2012, November 1, 2010 and November 27, 2006 were called by the Chairman. After consulting with our current State’s Attorney, this was not the proper way to call a special meeting due to the fact that the Chairman was not elected by the voters of the County. Thanks for making the County Board aware of this situation to better run our government."
I appreciate that they consulted the State's Attorney on this matter, but is such a basic duty of the County Board really so difficult to read and understand that they have to eat up his time for legal advice? Legal consultation aside, we do appreciate the response, which tells the public they do in fact know how to take corrective measures once they are made aware of noncompliance with the law.
We also had raised the issue of Open Meetings Act training compliance during one of the recent meetings and turns out, at the time, there were only three board members compliant. We are pleased to report that after notifying the board of the neglect of duty statute that brings civil penalties, the State's Attorney confirmed that they only had one more board member that was not finished with their mandated training and assured me it was being taken care of. We thank them for doing the right thing.
The Open Meetings Act training is one of importance because it is designed to educate those elected officials of what they can and can't do during meetings. For example, they would learn that any action taken in a public meeting must be properly listed on the agenda as an action item and contain sufficient information to inform the public what action is to be taken. A recent example of how failing to do that can be found in this recent article where the 911 Coordinators Contract was declared null and void by the State's Attorney because of failure to properly place it on the agenda for action. We thanked them for doing the right thing.
Another recent example is our own lawsuit against the Clark County Park District. This case dealt with insufficient information on an agenda that was acted on. You can read the court's ruling at this link, which is now case law.
Not convinced following procedures can be problematic? Ford County State's Attorney just last week nullified a contract that was awarded without proper bid solicitations. The contractor who initially was awarded the bid had already spent money towards items the county requested, yet that has no bearing on the case because county procurment laws were not followed and he could be left holding the bag, so to speak.
“There’s a case from the Fourth District (of the Illinois Appellate Court), which is what Ford County is in, that addressed a similar type of issue. It says that where a statute requires competitive bidding, compliance with the statute is mandatory. The failure to comply renders the result and contract invalid. So that’s kind of where we’re at today.”
We thank Ford County Officials for doing the right thing.
We also thank the Coles County officials for taking the steps to fix matters such as proper agenda postings, open meetings act training, and special meeting notices. That is a sign that they want to do things the way the law intended. We can only hope they take similar steps to fix the assessment issue we wrote about here and here.