March is sunshine month, when the spotlight is on transparency in government, whether it be local, state or national. While openness and transparency in governing bodies are the daily concerns of journalists, government watchdogs and other concerned citizens, March has been designated the time to call attention to these concerns. In looking for transparency in government, we are helped by the Illinois Open Meetings Act, the Freedom of Information Act and the Illinois Accountability Project, the Sunshine Project.

A recent decision by the Attorney General’s office regarding what can properly be discussed in closed meetings has shed light on what we believe may be an improper practice in Evanston.

In September of last year, an alderman on the Elmhurst City Council refused to attend two closed meetings because she felt the topics to be covered were beyond the scope of the exceptions listed in the Illinois Open Meetings Act (OMA). The discussions in closed meetings concerned the disposition of property owned by the City and the relevant exception to OMA was section 2(c)(6).  That section allows a closed-session meeting to discuss “the setting of a price for sale or lease of property owned by the public body.”

The Attorney General said that “OMA does not permit general discussion concerning the disposition of property” in closed session. Such discussion must be limited to matters “directly tied to the setting of a price.”

The Attorney General’s review of the verbatim recordings of the Elmhurst meetings showed that the Council “discussed zoning variations, the possible use of the property (office, retail or parking), and the opportunities that various zoning options would provide to the City.” They also discussed other matters, such as whether the offer was “in the ballpark,” whether to extend the time to negotiate a sale price, a proposed contingency on changing zoning laws, the density of the downtown Elmhurst area and the best use for the space.

The Attorney General found that these discussions were not permitted in closed session and that “the terms, details and process for such sale or lease are not topics permitted to be discussed in a closed meeting.”

Having found that the Elmhurst City Council violated the Open Meetings Act, the Attorney General’s office said the remedy was to “immediately” release to the public the portions of the closed-session minutes and recordings that related to the discussion in question.

Here in Evanston, the Human Services Committee held at least one closed meeting about the disposition of the Harley Clarke mansion, the building near Lighthouse Park that has been home to the Evanston Art Center for 40 years.

That the City plans to sell the mansion is no secret. The City issued a request for proposals stating, “The City of Evanston is soliciting proposals that contemplate the purchase of the buildings and land occupied by the buildings; the purchase of the buildings only; or the long term lease of the buildings.”

At the Dec. 3, 2012, Human Service Committee, a City administrator told the members of the committee that there had been only one response to the City’s RFP for the Harley Clarke mansion. He said it is “a fairly big proposal” and requested a closed meeting “to discuss the proposal we received.”  He added that he was told by the City’s law department that since the meeting would deal with “the potential sale of property,” it could be closed.

We do not know what was discussed at the Dec. 17 closed meeting, and possibly other closed meetings, but a discussion about a “fairly big proposal” may have gone beyond just setting a price for the property.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz told the RoundTable this week that for as long as he has been City Manager the practice was to discuss the “terms and conditions” of the disposition of real estate in closed session. He added that, in light of the Elmhurst decision, the City has now changed its practice in regard to discussions about real estate in closed sessions.

In an email to the RoundTable, Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar said, “As a past recipient of a Sunshine award, the City has and continues to strive for full compliance with the Open Meetings Act.”

He said in light of the Attorney General’s opinion in the Elmhurst case, though, “I recommended that discussions involving price-setting be very limited on a going-forward basis.” He also said he “will be recommending that Council release executive-session minutes regarding the Harley Clarke property as soon as it can get on an agenda.”

This is a start.

We think the City should release both the minutes and recordings of closed-session meetings about the Clarke property. It should also release both the minutes and recordings of all other closed sessions where the discussion of the disposition of other City property strayed beyond what is clearly the narrow topic of setting a price.