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Thursday, July 14, 2005 09:01 pm

Duty to disclose

City Clerk Cecilia Tumulty: “With a couple of exceptions, the minutes should just be released, including the audio tapes.”

The long-overdue review of the Springfield City Council’s private meetings has prompted one alderman to spill the beans on what his colleagues have been doing behind closed doors. At the council’s July 5 meeting, Ward 3 Ald. Frank Kunz bolted from an executive session, fuming about his fellow council members’ reluctance to release minutes of past private sessions, as required by law.

“I got on my soapbox and did my flag-waving ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ speech that kinda went over everybody’s head,” Kunz says, “and since it was obvious that I was going to lose every vote, I walked out — no sense staying in there.”

State law permits governing bodies such as the City Council to meet in closed “executive session” to discuss lawsuits, personnel matters, and other sensitive business. However, state law also requires that the minutes of these executive sessions be reviewed every six months and released to the public once the need for confidentiality ceases to exist.

The council is now undertaking its first such review, and corporation counsel Jenifer Johnson can’t explain why aldermen have not complied with the state-mandated review schedule.

“I guess it was an oversight that it wasn’t done before,” Johnson says, “so we went back and looked at two years’ worth.”

The result is a draft ordinance, to be discussed July 18 by the council’s public-affairs committee, that lists eight executive sessions proposed for full release and another five executive sessions for which portions of the minutes can be released. Six other executive sessions not listed in the ordinance will remain entirely confidential.

But even the documents designated for complete disclosure probably won’t provide much information.

“The minutes that we’re proposing to release are very, very cursory,” says City Clerk Cecilia Tumulty.

All but one of the sessions listed for full release were held before Mayor Tim Davlin took office in April 2003. Under the previous administration, executive-session minutes offered few details: date and time of the meeting, a list of aldermen in attendance, and the topic of discussion — the caption of a lawsuit, for example.

Don Craven, attorney for the Illinois Press Association, says that such bare-bones documentation did not comply with the state requirement that a summary of discussion be included.

The mere title of a lawsuit doesn’t suffice. “That’s not a summary of the discussion,” he says.

Tumulty, who was the Ward 5 alderwoman during those executive sessions, says that she began expanding the scope of the minutes shortly after taking office as city clerk.

“I followed the precedent that [former corporation counsel] Bob Rogers sent over to me when he exited,” she says. “However, once there were a couple of cases that started coming through executive session, I felt it was important to be a little more forthcoming with what was discussed.”

She also began making digital audio recordings of every executive session to comply with a law requiring verbatim records of all meetings, and she says that she would like to see these recordings used — and released to the public — as the official minutes of executive sessions.

“My personal opinion is that, with a couple of exceptions, the minutes should just be released, including the audiotapes,” Tumulty says.

Kunz agrees.

“I believe the tape should be released, and she should edit out anything that should not be released,” he says.

The council adopted an ordinance in September 2004 providing the release of tapes for public inspection 18 months after the session, on the approval of the corporation counsel.

Johnson, however, says that audio recordings are not even covered under the Open Meetings Act and should not be substituted for the minutes of a meeting.

“I don’t think the tape’s the minutes,” she says.

The City Council could vote on the measure as early as July 19.

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