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Thursday, March 1, 2012 02:56 am

Suing the city

I hate meetings.

The tortured kabuki theater that is your typical city council/zoning commission/pick-a-public-body meeting rarely sets hearts afire. The script is usually bad, the bureaucrats, inevitably salaried, are always patient as they listen to the elected ask silly questions or loaded ones or no questions at all as they make their way to predetermined destinations. If there were any doubt about the outcome, they wouldn’t be meeting in the first place. No one, after all, likes surprises, especially with reporters around.

Early sessions of Congress, when the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were crafted, were by-invitation-only, but since then, it’s been pretty much understood and accepted that elected officials need to meet in public to accomplish the public’s business. No matter how boring, public meetings are necessary if only to hold decision makers accountable. Constituents need to know how their representatives vote, whether elected officials can say things that make sense and whether leaders showed up at all to make decisions ranging from how many potholes should be patched to how much to tax the body politic.

That’s why I’m suing the city of Springfield.

 I don’t think you need to be a lawyer to know that it’s wrong to meet behind closed doors to decide whether the city should offer health insurance to civil-union partners of municipal employees. But that’s what an outfit called the Joint Labor Management Health Committee did, both last year, when it decided no insurance would be forthcoming, and in January, when it reportedly reversed itself.

Reportedly. That’s a word that should never have to be used when describing a decision like this. Yet, because the public was barred from the meetings where the decisions were allegedly made, “reportedly” is the operative term. More incredible is the apparent acquiescence of the city council, a body that has never shied from discussing the minutiae of municipal spending. Yet, when it comes to health care, on which the city spends more than $20 million a year, the council has punted to an appointed committee, half of which are union representatives, that meets in secret to make decisions that affect all city employees, union members or not, and invites lawsuits funded by taxpayers. In the instant case, civil-rights groups had threatened to sue the city if civil-union partners were not covered by insurance.

The city has been sued. And, so far, I am winning. On Feb. 15, Sangamon County Associate Judge Brian Otwell ruled that the committee is a public body as defined by the state Open Meetings Act and cannot meet in secret. In so ruling, Otwell nullified the committee’s reported decision to extend health benefits to civil-union partners of municipal employees.

As I write this, it is uncertain what will happen next. The right thing to do, and simplest, is for the committee to hold a public meeting and take another vote. But, when it comes to government, what is right and simple doesn’t always happen. Rather than do the obvious and hold a public meeting, the city is demanding that I post a bond to cover damages in the event someone sues the city for failure to offer health benefits to civil-union partners.

There is no indication that the city is ready to drop its legal fight to preserve secret meetings, despite Otwell’s ruling. And, really, the city’s obstinacy isn’t surprising, when you think about it. Under state law, the city must pay my legal expenses if I prevail, but it’s not the mayor’s money, or the council’s money, or the unions’ money at stake. It is my money, as well as everyone else’s money who lives in Springfield and pays taxes. And when you play with house money, the bets sometimes don’t make sense.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.
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