In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Edward Carrington in which Jefferson reminded him that:
“We have the greatest opportunity the world has ever seen, as long as we remain honest – which will be as long as we can keep the attention of our people alive. If they once become inattentive to public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, judges and governors, would all become wolves.”
If a giant like Jefferson could be concerned about becoming a wolf due to his constituents’ inattention, our local public officials should be downright terrified.
Unfortunately, at least some of them seem to be so delighted by that prospect that they go out of their way to keep their constituents in the dark on anything important – at least until after it becomes a done-deal.
So when it comes to making and keeping the public inattentive, no local unit of government does it “better” than the Board of Park Ridge-Niles School District 64. And one of its principal techniques for putting the taxpayers and local media to sleep is holding numerous “closed session” meetings where the public and the press are excluded, no minutes or recordings are made available to the public and, consequently, the average taxpayer can’t make heads or tails out of what is actually going on over there.
By our unofficial count, the D-64 Board holds more closed session meetings than the Park Ridge City Council and the Park Ridge Park District Board combined. For a governmental unit that consumes a full third of our property taxes (versus the City’s roughly 10% and the Park District’s 5%), that’s far too much secrecy and far too little accountability that’s been going on for far too long.
But last week’s (June 22) D-64 Board meeting provided a rarity worth noting: for the first time in memory a D-64 Board actually voted not to go into a scheduled closed session.
Before you leap to the conclusion that this is a harbinger of some real winds of change blowing through the historically-opaque D-64, however, we strongly encourage you to watch at least a couple of segments of the meeting video, starting with the first 8 minutes 12 seconds. If you do, you very well may conclude – as we have – that the one vote against a closed session was but the faintest of breezes that barely even rippled D-64’s curtain of secrecy.
It also may have been a one-off aberration.
Start watching around the one-minute mark and you’ll see Board president Tony Borrelli announce that “we’re going to do something a little different tonight.” The little difference? Dividing the scheduled three-in-one combination motion of three closed-session action items into three individual motions for separate votes.
So far, so good.
But Borrelli immediately falls (jumps?) off the transparency wagon when he makes the motion for a closed session to discuss potential or pending litigation.
He stays pretty much on script by reading the particular section of the Illinois Open Meetings Act (“IOMA”) that permits a “litigation” exception to IOMA’s open meeting requirements – although he does let slip that the pending or threatened litigation is about “residency.”
SIDEBAR: IOMA requires that all meetings be “open” to the public, but it permits closed meetings for discussions of certain limited topics or matters. However, closed sessions are not required for any of those topics or matters. And, even more significantly, IOMA does not require that the public officials participating in closed session meetings keep those discussions secret. An official could come out of one of those meetings and recount in minute detail everything that went on in the meeting, without any legal consequences under IOMA.
If “transparency” actually meant anything to Borrelli, he could have proved it by immediately placing on the public record – legally and properly under IOMA – some basic information about that litigation, including: (1) the identity of the person(s) who have filed or are threatening the litigation; (2) the name(s) of any attorney(s) representing the person(s); (3) the names of any individuals (besides the District itself) who are or are threatened with being defendants; and (4) the reason(s) why the suit has been filed or threatened.
But that kind of transparency is to Borrelli what castor oil was to “Spanky” McFarland in those old-time “Little Rascals” short films: totally distasteful. And it’s no more palatable to Board members Bob Johnson, Vickie Lee, Dathan Paterno and Scott Zimmerman.
The meeting video shows the “litigation” closed-session motion quickly passing by a vote of 3 (Borrelli, Johnson and newcomer Tom Sotos) to 1 (newcomer Mark Eggemann), with Lee, Paterno and Zimmerman MIA at that point in the festivities.
Next comes Borrelli’s motion to go into closed session to discuss Supt. Laurie Heinz’s contract extension and raise, which he tries to justify as being “purely for getting our thoughts together.”
Yes, folks, he actually said that!
That’s because, in Borrelli’s faux-transparent, faux-accountable parallel civic universe, the process by which our elected officials get their thoughts together on things like extending, after only one year, the multi-year contract for the District’s top (and highest paid) bureaucrat – and throwing in a raise to boot – is so far beyond the ken of us simple-minded taxpayers that it cannot be shared with us. For our own good, of course.
We can almost hear Borrelli channeling Jack Nicholson’s “Col. Jessup”:
“The truth. You taxpayers can’t handle the truth!”
So, not surprisingly, Borrelli and Johnson quickly vote “yes” and Eggemann just as quickly votes “no,” dropping what could be the decisive vote in Sotos’ lap at the 2:35 mark of the video. And what we get for the next 2 minutes is Sotos Agonistes, grappling with the dilemma of running yet again into another closed-session discussion of Heinz’s performance and the reason(s) for rewarding it.
At one point Sotos actually suggests, mirabile dictu, deferring the vote to another meeting so that the Board could publish – sufficiently in advance of that next meeting– the basic terms of Heinz’s extension and raise, thereby giving the public a chance to learn those terms and perhaps comment on them before the vote is taken.
But Borrelli was having none of that. He promptly repels Sotos’ suggestion by insisting (with Heinz nodding her agreement) that “the stuff we’re going to be discussing has already been presented in open session” – without giving chapter and verse about when and where that was done, or where the taxpayers might find that information, or any video of it, or any written account of it.
SPOILER ALERT: From the videos we’ve watched and all the Board packets we’ve reviewed, Borrelli’s statement appears to have been nothing short of a complete lie – although we would love to be proved wrong on this point.
Which may have been why Sotos wasn’t convinced and voted “no,” thereby creating a 2-2 tie that would have nuked the closed session – if not for the arrival of Lee (“at the right time,” according to Borrelli at approx. 5:25 of the video) who promptly broke the tie with her “yes” vote for the closed session.
That evil deed being done, the Board moves on to the last of those closed-session motions: a discussion of the new deals being given to the District’s secretaries, custodians, maintenance, exempt and administrative employees. Borrelli gives his assurances that, following the closed session, he has “every reason and every intent on providing as much documentation in summary as possible before we take that vote.” Meaning that they would come out of that closed-session discussion, put a smattering of information about the new deal on the record, and then vote on the deal seconds later.
Can you say: “The taxpayers be damned”?
But after Sotos and Eggemann announced they would be voting “no,” Borrelli apparently decided he could afford to look a bit magnanimous after having already locked in closed sessions on the two most important of the three closed-session motions. So he announced that Eggemann had persuaded him to change his mind, and he voted “no.”
Johnson, his moistened finger detecting Borrelli’s breeze, took his cue and joined what by then was clearly a majority – leaving the clueless Lee to cast the sole “yes” vote on the basis that no “consensus” (that’s what they call an unofficial “vote” taken in closed session to ensure they’ve got the necessary votes to do whatever it is they want before coming out into the sunlight and staging the official vote) had been reached in previous closed sessions, thereby requiring further discussions out of the taxpayers’ earshot.
Because at D-64, the curtain of secrecy barely ever ripples.
And in our next post, we’ll be addressing in greater detail the Board’s charade surrounding Heinz’s new deal.
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