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One week after the RoundTable filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for minutes and audio recordings of closed-session meetings at which certain aspects of a proposed sale of the Harley Clarke mansion were discussed, the RoundTablewas told that those tapes “no longer exist.” The tapes were of the Dec. 17, 2012, and Feb. 4, 2013, closed-session Human Services Committee meetings.
Under the Illinois Open Meetings Act, tapes of closed-session meetings must be kept for at least 18 months and can be destroyed only after a vote in an open session of City Council.
The Illinois Open Meetings Act requires public bodies to hold all meetings in public unless an exception applies. The purpose is to ensure transparency in government.
In February the Illinois Attorney General’s office held that an exception contained in the Open Meetings Act allows public bodies to discuss “the setting of a price for the sale or lease of property owned by the public body in a closed session.” The Attorney General’s office held, though, that discussion on other matters, such as conditions or terms of the sale, the development of the property, the best use of the property and zoning, could not be held in closed session.
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz told the RoundTable in mid-March that the City Council’s practice was to discuss in closed session the “terms and conditions” of the sale of City-owned property. Both he and City Attorney Grant Farrar told the RoundTable at that time that the practice would change.
Since City Council or its committees held discussions about the sale or development of property beyond what was permitted in closed sessions, the RoundTable opined in an editorial that the City should release the minutes and the audio recordings of those meetings.
On April 19, the RoundTable filed an FOIA request with the City, requesting both tapes and minutes of closed-session meetings at which the sale, lease or development of the Harley Clarke mansion and the Noyes Cultural Arts Center was discussed. The RoundTable excluded from its request discussions about the setting of a price for sale or lease of the property.
On April 26, Michelle Masoncup, an attorney in the City’s law department sent the City’s response to the RoundTable’s FOIA request. She said the audio recordings of the two Human Services Committee meetings at which the development of the Harley Clarke mansion was discussed “no longer exist.” She did enclose copies of the minutes of those meetings and of a Feb. 25 closed-session City Council meeting. The Human Services Committee meetings each lasted about an hour and a half; the minutes of each were about two letter-sized pages.
HSC Audio Recordings Destroyed
On April 29, the RoundTable sent an email to the City Manager asking why the tapes no longer existed, how and by whom they were destroyed and who authorized their destruction.
On April 30, Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar responded to the RoundTable’s email, saying in part: “the recordings were inadvertently deleted in the process of transcribing the electronic recording to paper. ”
On May 6, two RoundTable reporters met with Mr. Farrar to try to clarify how the closed-session meetings were recorded, when and how the audio recordings were destroyed and what precautions had been taken to ensure that the tapes would be preserved.
Mr. Farrar said the Human Services Committee has held only two closed-session meetings. He said he helped set up the digital recording device that was used to record both meetings and instructed the person recording the meetings that the recordings were required to be kept for 18 months.
Mr. Farrar said that after each closed-session meeting, the person who made the recordings attempted to save them to the City’s server, and that, in each case, she failed to do so. The audio recordings were deleted from the digital recording device on the assumption that the recordings had been saved to the server, he said.
No one checked to see whether the recordings had in fact been saved to the server before deleting the recordings from the device, said Mr. Farrar.
Mr. Farrar said he had no direct involvement in the recording or saving of the audio recordings but said, “My preparation and assistance could have been better.
“Now I see that, in terms of best practices, it would be advisable to learn from this first-time-user error and try to do better in the future. … I think that we need to do a better job in terms of training … and building in redundancies, he said.”