Minutes and Tapes of Closed Sessions Regarding Addison Avenue Project Made Public
Elmhurst City Council Acts in the wake of Attorney General's ruling.
After hearing charges from residents that the situation was “Nixonian” and showed “extraordinary arrogance” on the part of the city, Elmhurst City Council Monday, voted to release both the minutes and the verbatim tapes from two closed session meetings held last September. The decision follows last week's opinion from the Illinois Attorney General's Office that those closed sessions violated the Open Meetings Act.
First Ward Alderman Paula Pezza filed the complaint with the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Bureau regarding two meetings about Arco Murray/Addison Corridor LLC's proposal to build a six-story building at 135-149 N. Addison. An opinion issued by the State's Attorney's Office last week stated that the City Council twice violated the Open Meetings Act by discussing aspects of the Addison project in closed session.
Under the act, government bodies may only meet in closed session to discuss sensitive matters that are narrow and limited in scope, according to the Citizens Advocacy Center, which assisted Pezza in filing the complaint. One specific exception permits private discussions when “setting a price for the sale or lease of property owned by the public body.”
But, the opinion continues, “matters concerning the initial decision by a public body to sell or lease property, and the terms, details and processes for such sale or lease are not topics permitted to be discussed in a closed meeting.”
'Issue at Hand Was Hardly Straightforward'
Before the City Council's vote, Acting Mayor Scott Levin read aloud a lengthy statement explaining the situation and expressing his opinion that “There is substantial legal basis for (the city attorney's) advice that the council could appropriately discuss the economic issues related to Addison Street in closed session.”
However, he acknowledged that “if a mistake in judgment has been made, it was done with the best of motives behind it. ... As an attorney, I can say with confidence that the issue at hand was hardly straightforward.”
The Attorney General's ruling noted that City Council members discussed zoning variations, the possible use of the property (office, retail or parking) and opportunities that various zoning options would provide the city, topics that “that fall outside the scope” of the exceptions to the Open Meetings Act.
Levin then assured residents that “the council will be far more sensitive and diligent on Open Meetings Act issues.”
First Ward Alderman Paula Pezza said she wanted any aldermen who discussed the project during the closed meetings to recuse himself or herself from future votes on the project.
But Levin was skeptical about Pezza's request, saying forcing an elected official to not take part in an important issue might not be legal. Pezza eventually withdrew her request.
First Ward Alderman Diane Gutenkauf said that when the tapes become public, it will be obvious who is speaking.
Followup and Fallout
Levin said the city has asked for some clarification from the Attorney General's office, as well as copies of the opinions it used to make its ruling. He said not only were these opinions not available online, the Assistant Attorney General asked the city to complete a Freedom of Information Request for them.
“What Alderman Pezza brought to the surface is a meaningful and important policy discussion,” Levin added.
Pezza thanked Levin for his “respectful” comments, but noted that “the entire process around this project has been tainted now.”
Several residents seemed to agree.
“It's a serious breach of trust,” Addison resident Dan Armstrong said before the vote.