There should be no secrets in the actions of public bodies; let us say that at the outset. The public has a right to know the doings of their government and the officials they elect to keep the place running effectively and promote the general welfare of the residents.
The few exceptions to the public’s right to be in on the deliberations of government are found in the Illinois Open Meetings Act. Under the OMA, only the deliberations on matters expressly exempted from the requirements of the OMA may be held in private. Further, no action can be taken in a closed-session meeting. City Council and other public bodies that deliberate matters in closed sessions must vote in public on those matters.
Thus, while the OMA contemplates privacy in executive sessions, it does not condone secret action.
We understand the difference, and we believe the public’s right to know should be given as expansive consideration as possible.
We distinguish too between matters discussed in closed session that may be disclosed afterward and those that should be kept confidential. Examples of what we believe should be kept confidential are certain personnel matters and anything of a personal nature.
There are rarely heroes when personal privacy is breached. In Evanston some are calling our present City-government brouhaha “Mistyleaks,” since someone leaked executive session materials to local blogger Misty Witenberg, who then made them public.
It is now possible to read online the allegations against the City Clerk and by whom and under what circumstances these allegations were made. It is possible to read the opinion of the outside counsel about the Clerk’s actions.
This information is likely the basis of the Mayor’s decision to propose at a recent City Council meeting a resolution to censure City Clerk Devon Reid for those alleged actions.
For privacy reasons, the allegations were not made public at the Council meeting where the proposed resolution was discussed and ultimately tabled. Because they were not made public, Ms. Witenberg has said, she decided to publish the entire executive- session packet.
Doing so has made public certain private information.
Once he learned that the information had been leaked, Mayor Stephen Hagerty launched an investigation into the source of the leak. He said he ascertained that the City’s information system had not been hacked, and he narrowed his search to the computers of fewer than two dozen people, including his colleagues on City Council. The Mayor explains this more fully in his letter on page 7.
Mayor Hagerty and Ms. Witenberg each had power over certain information; each had a choice to be public or private; and each apparently felt the community’s interest was better served by a public airing. Ms. Witenberg chose to publicize the names of the victims; Mayor Hagerty did not make public any names, but the persons he asked to be investigated are easily identifiable.
Of course, asking that about two dozen people be investigated does not allege or demonstrate that anyone of them engaged in wrongdoing.
What seems apparent in the decisions by Mayor Hagerty and Ms. Witenberg, though, is broken trust. Ms. Witenberg apparently did not trust the Council’s process considering whether to censure the City Clerk, an elected official. By requesting the Cook County Sheriff to investigate the source of the leak, Mayor Hagerty seemingly did not trust his colleagues on the Council or his fellow top-tier City employees.
Evanston is hurting, riven by anger and suspicion. This is another regrettable situation that engenders divisiveness and distrust.
Our City needs to do better.