Four people have requested that the Illinois Attorney General’s office look into whether the June 30 Emergency City Council meeting was held in violation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act (OMA). Neil P. Olson, Deputy Public Access Counselor in the office of Attorney General Lisa Madigan, said the officer is reviewing the requests.
The OMA allows emergency meetings to be held without the normally requisite notice, but it does not specify what constitutes an emergency. In calling the emergency meeting, Mayor Steve Hagerty cited the actions taken or likely to be taken by neighboring municipalities to opt out of the ordinance.
The sole agenda item for the June 30 meeting was for the Council to consider an ordinance to temporarily opt out of the Cook County Minimum Wage and Sick Leave Ordinance – from June 30 until July 10, when the Council could consider the ordinance and its possible ramifications on local businesses at the regularly scheduled Council meeting.
The County’s ordinance, adopted last fall, contained an opt-out provision, but would be effective in Evanston as of July1 of this year. Neither the City Council sitting at that time nor the Council members who were sworn in after the April election considered the ordinance. In late June, however, several municipalities decided to consider opting out of the ordinance.
On the evening of June 28, the RoundTable received an email message from City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz that Mayor Hagerty had called a special City Council meeting for 10 a.m. on June 30. After receiving the message, the RoundTable checked the City’s website and, finding no notice of the meeting had been posted there, emailed the City Manager and questioned whether the required notice – 48 hours – was given. The meeting was subsequently declared an “emergency” meeting.
On July 13, Allison Mcguire posted a comment on the RoundTable’s website saying that she had contacted the Attorney General’s office and requested a review “directly after the ‘emergency meeting.’”
At the RoundTable’s request, the office of the Public Access Counselor sent copies of all four complaints – names and other identifying material redacted – about the “emergency” nature of June 30 meeting.
Mr. Olson sent Mayor Hagerty an email letter on July 10, notifying the Mayor that Ms. Mcguire’s request for review “alleges that the Council violated OMA by characterizing a June 30, 2017, meeting as an ‘emergency meeting,’ when the subject matter did not constitute a bona fide emergency. This office has determined that further inquiry is warranted.”
Mr. Olson directed the Mayor to “provide a detailed written response to the allegations in the Request for Review; please specifically address Ms. Mcguire’s assertion that the June 30, 2017, meeting should not have been considered an ‘emergency’ meeting.”
Mayor Hagerty’s response, prepared by Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar, said Evanston’s City government “is recognized as a local government that values transparency in government,” citing recent Sunshine in Government awards by the Illinois Policy Institute, including a “perfect score” in 2013. The response also presented a timeline that included the Cook County Board’s approval of the ordinance in October of last year, the lack of action by the Evanston City Council through the campaign season, the seating of a new Council and Mayor in May of this year, Wilmette’s June 27 decision to opt out of the ordinance, and Skokie’s announced its intention on June 28 to consider opting out of the ordinance. The Village of Skokie did not opt out of the ordinance, but Mayor Hagerty’s response – as well as statements regarding the reason to call an emergency meeting – cited Wilmette’s action and Skokie’s stated intention as constituting the “emergency.”
Annie Johnson, Press Secretary in the Attorney General’s office, told the RoundTable the Public Access Counselor looks into every request. In 2016, there were 4,720 requests, she said, of which about 366 dealt with the Open Meetings Act.
There is no set time period in which a response from the Attorney General’s office, Ms. Thompson said. If a violation is found, the consequences are not punitive. “The main goal is to educate the public body. For the most part we work with them to get them into compliance. … Ultimately the goal is to help them understand what the law is.”