Illinois House bill aims to inform legislators

Patrick Svitek

A recently passed bill in the Illinois House of Representatives aims to increase politicians’ knowledge of the Illinois Open Meetings Act, but some regular Evanston City Council attendees scoff at its potential to reform what they view as an increasingly opaque city government.

House Bill 1670, which cleared the lower chamber 67-48 last month, would call for all current and incoming public officials to complete an online quiz about the state law.

Such proactive measures are well-intentioned but do not effect true change, Evanston resident and Feinberg Prof. Padma Rao said, who continued criticizing council members for back-room dealings at Tuesday’s meeting. Her primary grievance centers on residential development that council members approved unanimously last month at the former site of Kendall College, 2408 Orriginton Ave.

“I don’t think the problem is that they don’t know about the openness of meetings,” Rao said. “I just don’t think they want to include the public at all.”

Kevin O’Connor, another resident who routinely observes the biweekly sessions, echoed Rao’s argument and decried aldermen now exercising “the hypocrisy they ran against.” He said his qualms with Evanston politics boiled over March 28, when he overheard Ald. Judy Fiske (1st) assuring a construction lawyer that legislative action would proceed on the division of 19 single-family lots at the Kendall block.

“She told him, ‘Well, then you understand how this is going to work,'” O’Connor recalled. “That’s a direct quote.”

Calls to Fiske were unreturned Thursday evening.

O’Connor added the perceived scheming is only the latest in a string of city oversights, including a drawn-out Freedom of Information Act request for Evanston government employee salaries and a lost recording of last year’s budget meeting.

State Rep. Kelly Burke, D-36th, the chief sponsor of House Bill 1670, said her proposal might illuminate some of these gray areas at the local level by upping officials’ mastery of the Illinois Open Meetings Act. That state law specifies the procedures and conditions any elected body must obey to exclude the public from a special gathering.

Regardless, most violations of the accountability-minded statute are not malicious or even intentional, Burke said.

“The more information you know, the less likely you are to inadvertently break that law,” she added.

Although the intent of the pending bill pleases Rao, she said she was disappointed to hear it does not materially reprimand politicians who fail to pass or even take the online quiz in due time. Incumbent officials will be afforded one year after the law’s passage to complete the examination and incoming officials will be allowed three months, according to the current version of House Bill 1670.

Burke defended her legislative initiative as only a means of promoting the Open Meetings Act and not a disciplinary mandate. She said it was modeled after a similar Texas law that also relied on an honor code to ensure politicians fulfilled the education requirements.

“Their experience was more of not providing a penalty,” Burke added. “It’s more of an awareness raiser, so there’s no punishment.”

Regardless of the bill’s logistics, Ald. Delores Holmes (5th) praised the general concept behind it.

“I think that all public officials should be very aware of the Open Meetings Act, especially the new ones,” she said. “And maybe it could even be a reminder for the old ones.”

But O’Connor countered that the council is uninterested in public input altogether, saying it was evidenced by the council’s skipping the citizen comment portion of Tuesday night’s township meeting.

In that case, Burke’s bill, which is currently being reviewed by state senate committees, is before its time, O’Connor added.

“I’d probably say that perhaps our local aldermen should do 45 minutes twice,” he said, referring to the online quiz’s estimated runtime. “I’d say we’re a long way from clarity and light.”

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