Who you gonna call?
City secrecy is a crime, but cops won’t take report
I went to the Springfield Police Department last week to file a police report.
What’s the offense?, the cop at the front desk asked.
“Violation of the state Open Meetings Act,” I said.
“Who did it?” the officer queried.
“Mayor Mike Houston and the city council,” I answered.
The officer said he would summon the corporation counsel. No thanks, I said. He handles civil law. This is a criminal matter. And I handed him a copy of the Open Meetings Act with the relevant portion highlighted.
“Any person violating any provisions of this Act…shall be guilty of a Class C misdemeanor.”
I asked the officer if he was declining to take a report. He said that he was, but I should talk with someone else. So it was that I ended up across a desk from a lieutenant, who said that he had never had a case like this during his 16-year career as a police officer.
He isn’t alone.
So far as anyone knows, no one in Illinois has ever paid a fine or gone to jail for breaking the law that says public bodies such as the Springfield City Council must conduct the public’s business in public. The lack of criminal consequences might explain why public officials keep breaking the law. In this case, the mayor and city council talked about putting Oak Ridge Cemetery under private management, an out-of-nowhere idea so far as aldermen were concerned. Three have told me that they were completely blindsided.
It is hard to imagine a more slam-dunk public policy question than putting Abraham Lincoln’s final resting place in private hands. Yet John Mehlick, corporation counsel, says it’s perfectly legal to talk about that behind closed doors because cemetery employees work for the city, which makes it a personnel matter and a subject of collective bargaining.
Adam and Eve wore considerably larger fig leaves.
Yes, the law allows public bodies to talk about personnel and union contracts in private, but come on. This isn’t about city employees, it’s about whether the city should transfer management of the cemetery to the private sector. It’s an idea that may never happen. Nothing is in writing – no requests for proposals, no contract, draft or otherwise, with any cemetery management company. The union contract for cemetery employees doesn’t expire until 2015.
The aldermen I’ve spoken with are all worked up about Houston’s proposal, but none seem overly concerned about the fact that they had a secret meeting to talk about the future of one of the city’s most important historic treasures. What they should have done is adjourn the executive session and walk out as soon as the mayor started talking about cemetery privatization. None did, which suggests that this sort of thing is business as usual.
The problem for a silly taxpayer like me is, there’s no way to enforce the law unless I can get a cop to take a report and forward it to the state’s attorney. In this case, the lieutenant asked me to give him a day to consider it. He also pointed out that the city investigating the city would be an awkward situation at best. Mehlick phoned 90 minutes later and said case closed.
I sued the city that same day, but I know that won’t do any good because I’ve sued before when the city has broken laws aimed at ensuring open government. Nothing changes, even when you win, because aldermen and the mayor don’t pay legal bills with their own money, they use yours and mine. Only the lawyers win.
That’s why I want charges filed against Houston and all 10 aldermen. Taxpayers don’t foot the legal bill when public officials get charged with crimes, so perhaps the mayor and city council won’t be so quick to meet in secret the next time if they all have to hire lawyers and pay for it themselves. It’s called a deterrent effect. Without it, you might as well shred the Open Meetings Act.
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com