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Evanston City Council members are expected to meet within the next few weeks to reconstruct in one or more closed sessions what was said and done in meetings that took place more than a year ago.
Minutes for 10 City Council executive sessions, dating back to August 2019 appear to be lacking. Tapes of these executive sessions are either missing or inaudible, according to City officials. Were the tapes audible or existing, they would form the basis for the minutes, augmented by notes taken at the meetings. Yet it appears that no notes, either hand-written or on a computer, were taken.
With some exceptions, City Clerk Devon Reid was responsible for the minutes of City Council meetings, open or closed, until January of this year. The exceptions were meetings at which Clerk Reid himself was a topic of discussion.
While approval of minutes of the previous meeting is often a top item on any agenda, City Council members reportedly often asked that the minutes of previous meetings be provided for their approval.
The Attorney General’s office has said, for the time being, that no violation of the Open Meetings Act has occurred.
Since January 2020, Deputy City Manager Kimberly Richardson has been taking the minutes.
Council members are expected to meet within the next few weeks to reconstruct in one or more closed sessions what was said and done in those meetings.
Quest for Minutes
Tapes of executive sessions held on Aug. 5, Sept. 9, Sept. 16, Sept. 23, Sept. 30, Oct. 14, Nov. 11 and 25 and Dec. 9, 2019; and Jan. 13, 2020, are either missing or inaudible, according to City officials.
Mayor Hagerty said that Clerk Reid rarely produced minutes of one meeting at the subsequent meeting.
Interim City Manager Erika Storlie told the RoundTable Mr. Reid “was never on time at providing any minutes. …We just were always begging for minutes and for everything and never getting it. … … He just kept saying, ‘I’ll get them to you,’ and then just never did.”
In an interview, Clerk Reid told the RoundTable, however, that timeliness of minutes had not been a high priority for the Council.
Referring to leaked minutes of some 2019 executive-session minutes posted on a local website, Mr. Reid said, “So you can go look at those. And what you can see is that there’s a common pattern, you know – even when I’m not responsible for the minutes (because there are certain executive sessions that I was the subject of, because of the lawsuit [by Mr. Reid against the City], and because of the healthy work environment [complaints by two City employees against Mr. Reid]), and so that responsibility was then placed temporarily in the hands of Kimberly Richardson to complete those minutes. … And what you’ll see is that it is a –it’s not the greatest – pattern, but it is a common pattern … that minutes typically don’t come back the next meeting. … It just happens like that sometimes.”
Clerk Reid said the Open Meetings Acts does specify a time limit for producing executive-session minutes and said, “That is a deadline that we don’t always meet.”
Mayor Hagerty also said he was troubled that Clerk Reid did not take handwritten or computer notes of these meetings.
The Clerk acknowledged he did not have any handwritten or computer notes from the 2019 sessions for which the audio recordings are inaudible or nonexistent but said, “I do not have written notes from those few sessions.”
Asked whether he generally takes notes at executive sessions, he said, “It varies whether I take notes,” but declined to elaborate.
In answer to a question about when he learned there were no audio recordings of certain meeting, Mr. Reid said, “I don’t recall the exact moment that I noticed that the audio was either corrupted or there’s some issue with it. … When did we notice that the recording was potentially corrupted? It was somewhere down the line.”
In response to email questions from the RoundTable, Mayor Hagerty said that in January of this year, “It became abundantly clear to me that we had a big problem when the Council asked for a summary of the missing executive session meetings. We received this summary, not from the Clerk, but rather the City’s law department on January 13, 2020. Based on that summary, I began to make specific requests of Clerk Reid, attempting to obtain these missing executive-session minutes.” He added, “It was maddening to get no response to my request.”
Between Jan. 13 and March 3 of this year, Mayor Hagerty sent 11 emails to Clerk Reid asking about the minutes. The email on Feb. 12 indicates that the Clerk provided a spreadsheet of the dates of missing minutes and their status, but he did not provide any recordings, minutes or notes of any of those meetings.
In an Aug. 3, 2020, memo to the members of City Council’s Rules Committee, Mayor Hagerty wrote, “My request of the Rules Committee is to formally direct the City Clerk Reid to produce these 12 missing executive session recordings and minutes by close of business, Tuesday, August 4th. If for some reason the recordings and minutes do not exist, then direct Clerk Reid to provide a written statement admitting such to the City Council to be included in the August 10th City Council packet.”
Attempts to Recover Files
The Mayor’s frustration turned to concern that the missing minutes were in fact nonexistent. In February, members of the City’s Information Technology team met with Mr. Reid to examine the audio tapes that he did have.
Ms. Storlie said that in late winter, “he [Mr. Reid] said, ‘Well, I’ve got files, but I need some help with them.’ And then he went to Luke [Stowe, the City’s Chief Information Officer], and Luke tried to help him. That was the first inkling that we had that he actually didn’t have [recordings.]”
Mr. Stowe and members of the City’s Information Technology team met with Clerk Reid on Feb. 14 to examine the recordings.
In a Sept. 1 memo to City Council, Mr. Stowe and Deputy City Clerk Gomez summarized the meeting and their conclusion that some sessions had not been recorded. The likely reason, they said, was that the microphone was muted.
The team then requested that Clerk Reid upload the files to a secure Google drive so they could review the files further, but he did not do so. Based on their initial review of the audio files, the IT team concluded “that no sound will be able to be salvaged from the files because it was never recorded to begin with.”
Mr. Stowe told the RoundTable at least six of the 10 files are inaudible, “meaning that there is a file but there’s no actual sound. And then there are four files [that have not been] found, or they have not been produced by the Clerk.”
Mr. Stowe said, “From what I saw, it was simply no incoming audio, presumably, because the button – the mute – was turned on. And then there are four other meetings where there was not any evidence of [any] recording. So I’m not quite sure where those recordings are and what he did.”
He also said Clerk Reid used a “personal device,” such as his laptop or phone, to record the minutes, whereas the previous City Clerk, Rodney Greene, would use a voice recorder.
Reconstructing Lost Executive-Session Minutes in Executive Sessions
On March 6 of this year, Mayor Hagerty wrote a letter to Steven Silverman, Chief of the Public Access Bureau of the Attorney General’s Office, informing him that 12 minutes and audio recordings of City Council executive-sessions were missing. He wrote to the aldermen he had done this, “because we, the City, under law have an obligation to record these meetings and produce minutes.”
Mayor Hagerty’s letter specified the dates of the sessions. It also described both his efforts over the previous several months to locate the minutes and Council’s implementation of new procedures to ensure minutes would be produced in a timely fashion. The Mayor also pledged to work with the Attorney General’s office “to rebuild the type of transparency our residents expect.”
Compliance, Not Consequences
The RoundTable contacted the Public Access Counselor of the Attorney General’s office about the missing minutes and what action, if any that office would take. Tori Joseph, the Deputy Press Secretary of the Attorney General’s office responded by email. She confirmed that the City had contacted the Attorney General’s office about the missing recordings and minutes.
“The city of Evanston contacted our office in March regarding concerns over missing recordings and meeting minutes. We spoke with them to discuss the need to keep closed session minutes and closed session recordings for all meetings, and City officials explained that procedures had been implemented to ensure this will happen in the future,” her email said.
She also wrote that the primary goal of the Public Access Counselor’s office is “to ensure that public bodies comply with the Open Meeting Act. The statute does not include penalties or give the PAC the authority to issue penalties; however, we will work with public bodies to ensure future compliance.”
In order for the Attorney General to intervene, Ms. Joseph said, someone would have to “file with the Public Access Counselor a timely request for review concerning the missing meeting minutes.”
Ms. Storlie said the Public Access Counselor “advised that we needed to try our best to use our memories to create minutes from these meetings.” She said the meetings would be scheduled soon, “although it would be very difficult [to reconstruct the events] because, as you know, some of these meetings are for more than a year ago.”
Mayor Hagerty said, “We are going to have to convene on a Saturday or some other day of the week to try and reproduce executive session meeting minutes from the last couple of years.”
The reconstruction of the minutes will take place in closed session. After the Council members reconstruct the minutes from memory, they will have another closed session to review each set to decide if any of them can be released to the public, Ms. Storlie said.
Mayor Hagerty said the City will ask Michelle Masoncup, the former Corporation Counsel to attend the reconstruction meeting. Any action decided by the Council in executive session must be approved in open session
The Illinois Open Meetings Act allows public bodies to meet in closed session for several reasons, among them discussing pending litigation. During the period for which the executive- session tapes are missing, the City was involved in at least three major lawsuits: The James Park litigation, the Lawrence Crosby suit against the City, and the water-rate litigation with Skokie.
The RoundTable has filed FOIA requests for agendas and minutes and recordings of each of the meetings for which minutes are said to be missing.