Elmhurst City Council to release closed session minutes, recordings

ELMHURST — The Elmhurst City Council voted unanimously Monday to release minutes and recordings from two closed meetings in September that discussed the proposed Addison Avenue development.

The two meetings, Sept. 10 and 17, 2012, violated the Open Meetings Act by discussing topics that are not allowed in closed sessions, according to a non-binding opinion from the Illinois Attorney General's Office last week.

The opinion was offered in response to a complaint filed by Alderman Paula Pezza when she declined to attend the two meetings because she believed they should have been public.

During Monday's meeting, Acting Mayor Scott Levin said he was in favor of releasing the minutes and recordings, but he was not certain the two meetings did, in fact, violate the Open Meetings Act.
Even so, he said Pezza's request for the Attorney General's opinion has "heightened awareness of the need to be vigilant with the Open Meetings Act."

Levin was an alderman on the council in September, but he was not acting mayor.

Levin said before the two September meetings, the council specifically asked the city attorney to advise whether or not discussing the Addison Avenue project in closed session would violate the OMA. The city attorney, who was present during the two meetings, told the council the discussion topic would be limited to the sale price for two floors of office space, which would be permissible to discuss in closed session under OMA.

Minutes for the two meetings, which are now available from the city, are vague and general in their description of the discussions. The verbatim recordings have not yet been released, but will be available on the city's website later this week, according to the city clerk's office.

In the Sept. 10 meeting, it appears aldermen discussed possible tenants for the development's office space. The developer, Arco Murray, was mentioned as the likely tenant.

The minutes do show that aldermen were careful not to discuss some topics, at least in detail, that could violate OMA, including the possible building height and other zoning issues.

The height of the building has been of particular debate between aldermen and some residents. The current development agreement calls for a four-story building, which is the tallest the code allows for downtown. Developers are now asking for a six-story building, which would require a zoning variance from the council.

Minutes from both meetings refer to discussion of "financials" of the project but do not provide detail. The minutes do not explicitly show that aldermen discussed a possible square-foot sales price for the real estate, which was the justification the council gave for holding the closed sessions.

Under the OMA, government bodies may only meet in closed session to discuss sensitive matters that are narrow and limited in scope. One specific exception permits private discussions when "setting a price for the sale or lease of property owned by the public body." The Attorney General's Office said the two closed meetings did not fall under that exemption.

Levin said when residents read the minutes or hear the recordings, it will be clear that the development is not a case of a "done deal" behind closed doors.

"There was no policy made in our closed sessions," he said.

Pezza said the regularity of closed-session discussions on the project since its inception in 2008 have limited the public's ability to weigh in before decisions are made, and have left residents on an un-level playing field with the council.