Attorney General's Office: Aldermen Violated Open Meetings Act with Closed Talks About Addison Project
Alderman Paula Pezza brought the complaint to the AG's Office, which says the city must release recordings and closed session minutes involving the Addison Avenue project in order to resolve the violation.
UPDATE: Thursday, Feb. 28
Both 3rd Ward Alderman Michael Bram and 1st Ward Alderman Diane Gutenkauf have gone on record stating that they were against discussing in closed session the items referred in the Attorney General's ruling that the city of Elmhurst violated the Open Meetings Act.
"I am one of the aldermen that contested and challenged this discussion that was held behind closed doors," Bram said. "When the tapes come out it will be clear that I questioned the rationale for discussing some of those items under closed session."
And, Gutenkauf released the following statement via email:
I attended the meetings in question and I am on record speaking out against discussing these important matters behind closed doors. The transcripts, once released, will show just that.
I'm glad to see that the Attorney General made the correct ruling and I hope this leads to a more transparent era for Elmhurst City Government. I look forward to the release of the transcripts so all of Elmhurst can know what some on the City Council wanted to keep hidden.
The Illinois Attorney General’s Office has released an opinion that the Elmhurst City Council has violated the Open Meetings Act.
First Ward Alderman Paula Pezza filed the complaint with the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Bureau. Pezza's filing claimed that on two occasions last September, the City Council improperly discussed the development and potential expansion of a proposed parking garage on city-owned land.
The subject of Alderman Pezza’s complaint is the Addison Street development, a project that is scheduled to go before the Elmhurst Zoning and Planning Commission today, Thursday, Feb. 28, at City Hall.
Acting Mayor Scott Levin said at the Feb. 19 City Council meeting that details of the Addison Street development would be made public after Thursday's Zoning Commission meeting.
"Feb. 28 is the Zoning Commission meeting," Levin said. "When it has moved beyond that point, we'll have a complete update on the history of the project and how we got to be where we are today.
In calling for the closed sessions, the city cited an exemption in the Open Meetings Act that permits discussion of acquisition and disposition of real property in closed session.
The Attorney General's opinion states that after a review of closed session tapes and other documents, Elmhurst City Council improperly discussed topics that fall outside the scope of the Open Meetings Act exemptions. (See attached file)
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."
The Attorney General's opinion states 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. Additionally, the opinion states that “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.”
On one date in question, “the topic of setting a price for the sale of the property never arose ... ,” the opinion states.
Pezza said she refused to attend the closed-door meetings for two reasons: The city owns all of the property and there is no acquisition issue, and the Open Meetings Act does not allow for general closed door discussions concerning disposition of property or extensions of redevelopment agreements.
The Attorney General also noted that several other City Council members expressed concern about discussing the matter in closed session.
Pezza said that prior to her decision not to attend the meetings, she requested the city refrain from holding such discussions in private.
“I felt it was important for Elmhurst residents to know how their tax dollars were being spent," she said in a prepared statement. "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?”
The Attorney General said in order to remedy the violations, the city must immediately disclose the closed session minutes and audio tapes.
"We look forward to the city’s immediate compliance with the direction of the Attorney General," said Terry Pastika, executive director and community lawyer of the Citizen Advocacy Center, which assisted Pezza with the filing.
The Public Access Counselor determined that "resolution of this matter does not require the issuance of a binding opinion."
Pezza's term on the City Council ends this spring. She is not seeking re-election.
This story will be updated.