Tape of closed Ford-Iroquois health board meeting sought

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois attorney general's office wants a copy of the audio tape of the Ford-Iroquois Public Health Department's most recent board meeting so it can determine whether closed-session discussions were permitted.

The Paxton Record filed a "request for review" with the Public Access Bureau of the attorney general's office last week, claiming the board of health discussed matters in closed session during its May 20 meeting that were unrelated to the Open Meetings Act exemption listed on the meeting's agenda and announced prior to entering closed session.

The newspaper also claimed that action taken after the closed session was not listed on the meeting's agenda as required.

On Monday, Matt Hartman, an assistant attorney general in the Public Access Bureau, sent a letter to Ford-Iroquois Public Health Administrator Doug Corbett and the agency's attorney, Jim Devine, stating that "further action is warranted."

Hartman asked the health department to respond in writing to the allegations. In addition, the agency was asked to provide a copy of the agenda and any minutes prepared for the meeting, as well as a copy of "any tapes or recordings" of the meeting, including "a copy of the verbatim record of the closed meeting."

Hartman requested the information within seven working days.

Before meeting in closed session for two hours on May 20, the board cited an exemption in the Open Meetings Act that allows closed sessions to discuss "security procedures and the use of personnel and equipment to respond to an actual, a threatened, or a reasonably potential danger to the safety of employees, students, staff, the public or public property."

Corbett had drafted the agenda and had listed the closed session on it — but the agenda item referred to only a portion of the applicable exemption, while it also included wording not mentioned in the law. The agenda said the closed session was to discuss "a reasonable potential danger to the safety of employees, staff, the public or public/private property."

Corbett informed the board during open session that the agenda item was no longer necessary, but health board member Rod Copas, who also serves as Iroquois County Board chairman, insisted the board meet to talk about the issue anyway.

The board first met behind closed doors with Corbett. After he exited the meeting, the board then met individually with two health department nurses.

After reopening the meeting to the public, the board voted unanimously to temporarily suspend Corbett's authority to hire, fire, reassign or discipline his employees. The board also voted unanimously to draft a letter to all health department employees in order to "better evaluate" their work environment, morale and goals.

Neither action was on the agenda.

After the meeting, Devine, who also serves as Iroquois County state's attorney, acknowledged that the board had discussed the "discipline of employees" of the agency, including Corbett, during the closed session, despite not citing the applicable exemption.

Discussion of the discipline of employees is permitted in closed session, but only if the applicable exemption is cited first in open session.

Devine later told the Paxton Record that he saw no issue with the legality of the action taken after the closed session. Devine said it must be legal since there is no way to tell what action will be needed prior to a closed session occurring.

The attorney general's office, meanwhile, in determining that "further action is warranted," said in its letter to the health department that the Open Meetings Act requires a meeting's agenda to "set forth the general subject matter of any resolution or ordinance that will be the subject of final action at the meeting."

Also, the law requires a board to limit the scope of closed-session discussions to the exemption cited, the attorney general's office said in its letter.

Despite Devine's acknowledgement that disciplinary measures were discussed, Copas and the board of health's president, Dr. Kevin Brucker, both said last month that they felt all discussions in closed session were related to the exemption that was cited.

Meanwhile, the attorney general's office is also asking the health department to respond to the Paxton Record's claim that the agency improperly denied a Freedom of Information Act request, which had sought the release of the audio recording of the closed session.

The Paxton Record claimed its FOIA request was denied with no reason given as required by law. The newspaper also alleged that the health department failed to inform it of its right to a review by the attorney general's office and failed to provide the address and phone number of the Public Access Bureau, as required by law.

The attorney general's office has found that "further action is warranted" in that case as well.

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