ELMHURST — Elmhurst's city council violated the Open Meetings Act last fall when it discussed plans for the Addison Avenue development in closed session, the Illinois attorney general's office ruled this week.
The attorney general's office has directed the city to release recordings and session minutes from the meeting that "improperly discussed" the project, according to Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center.
The Illinois Open Meetings Act is a state law that mandates that government officials to conduct business in the public eye.
Under the OMA, government bodies may only meet in closed session to discuss sensitive matters that are narrow and limited in scope, according to the Citizen Advocacy Center. One specific exception permits private discussions when "setting a price for the sale or lease of property owned by the public body."
The ruling is the result of a complaint filed by Elmhurst 1st Ward Alderman Paula Pezza protesting closed session meetings of the Elmhurst City Council on two separate occasions in September 2012. In the closed sessions, aldermen discussed the development and potential expansion of a proposed parking garage on city-owned land under the exemption of acquisition and disposition of real property.
Pezza refused to attend the closed-door meetings, stating that the meetings should be public because the city currently owns all of the property so there was no acquisition issue and the OMA does not allow for general closed door discussions concerning disposition of property or extensions of redevelopment agreements, according to the Citizens Advocacy Center.
“I felt it was important for Elmhurst residents to know how their tax dollars were being spent," she was quoted in a press release from the Citizens Advocacy Center. "In my opinion, there was no reason for this discussion to be held in private, especially when the council is having ongoing discussions about what to do with another parcel of publicly owned property on Hahn Street. Why was this project different?
"When it comes to the public trust and the right of taxpayers to know and understand how business is handled, doing the right thing should come before doing the easy thing. While not easy, I knew it was the right thing to do and I want our young men and women, our future leaders, to know that. I hope that this will not only bring awareness to the city and other elected officials that the public trust is an open process, but also empower others to speak up when have questions about the law or things being shielded from public view. Americans should demand nothing less from their elected officials."
Coincidentally, the Addison Avenue parking garage is scheduled to go before the Elmhurst Zoning and Planning Commission tonight, Feb. 28 at Elmhurst City Hall. The meeting concerns requests by the developer to build the structure two stories higher than is currently allowed for in the downtown district, and for the building to be built closer to the property line that code currently allows.
The opinion produced by the attorney general’s office states that after a review of the closed session tapes and other documents, the city council improperly discussed topics that fall outside the scope of the exemptions. City council members discussed zoning variations, the possible use of the property — office, retail or parking — and the opportunities that various zoning options would provide the city.
The Citizen Advocacy Center assisted Alderman Pezza in filing and navigating the complaint process.
"This is an important decision for public bodies, for Elmhurst, and for Alderman Pezza," said Terry Pastika, executive director and community lawyer of the Citizen Advocacy Center. "Illinois public bodies routinely go into closed session under the exemption of price-setting for land and end up having general discussions that should be in the public eye. This decision states that public bodies must keep their discussions narrow to the specific exemption.
"For Elmhurst residents, the disclosure of the closed session minutes and audiotapes are necessary. Elmhurst residents need to hear what their public officials think of the general development issues, a conversation that should happen in the public eye. For Alderman Pezza, it is personal validation that her continuing protest on behalf of the taxpayers against the closed meetings was justified. We look forward to the city’s immediate compliance with the direction of the attorney general."
A copy of the attorney general’s Public Access Counselor’s Opinion is available on the Citizen Advocacy Center’s website, www.citizenadvocacycenter.org.
The Citizen Advocacy Center is a non-profit, non-partisan community legal organization.