State: Ford-Iroquois board violated Open Meetings Act

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois attorney general's office has concluded that the Ford-Iroquois Public Health Department board committed multiple violations of the state's Open Meetings Act during its May 20 meeting.

In response to a June 5 complaint filed by the Paxton Record, Assistant Attorney General Matt Hartman sent a letter Sept. 13 to Iroquois County State's Attorney Jim Devine, concluding that the board violated the law by discussing matters in closed session that were not cited on the agenda or in the verbal motion to enter executive session.

Further, Hartman wrote, the board violated the law by failing to record the entire closed session and "improperly took final action on two matters not on the agenda."

Devine, who serves as the health department's legal counsel, said Monday that he could not comment on Hartman's letter because he had not seen it.

The board met in closed session after citing 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."

In a June 14 letter to the attorney general's office, Devine noted that then-Administrator Doug Corbett wrote the agenda for the meeting, which included the closed-session item. After the board entered closed session, Devine said, Corbett "spoke to the board about his concerns of an employee who had health issues that may have impacted employee and public safety."

The employee then presented testimony to the board in response to Corbett's concerns, and during the employee's testimony, "a multitude of information about Mr. Corbett's management performance was addressed to the board," Devine said.

A second employee then testified to the board, also addressing Corbett's performance, Devine said.

Devine had conceded in June that matters unrelated to the "security" exception were discussed. But Devine also argued that the discussions were allowed by the Open Meetings Act, since they were related to the discipline or performance of specific employees.

Hartman, however, said the attorney general's office concluded that the board violated the Open Meetings Act because it did not cite the applicable exemption.

"The mere fact that the subject of a discussion would fall under a (permitted) exemption does not relieve the board of its obligation to cite the specific exemption relevant to each topic it discusses," Hartman wrote.

"The verbatim recording of the board's closed session (provided to the attorney general's office by Devine) does not reflect any discussion of security procedures or emergency response," added Hartman.

Hartman also concluded that the board violated the Open Meetings Act when it voted, after reopening the meeting to the public, to temporarily suspend Corbett's authority to hire, fire, reassign or discipline his employees, and to draft a letter to all health department employees to "better evaluate" their work environment, morale and goals.

Neither action was referenced on the agenda.

In his letter, Devine said the action taken "was in response to the testimony of all the employees in executive session."

But Hartman said "the fact that the board decided to take action based upon information it obtained during the closed session does not supersede the board's responsibility under (the Open Meetings Act) to include in its agenda the general subject matter of any resolution or ordinance upon which final action may be taken."

Hartman said "there is no action that can be undertaken at this time to remedy" the violations that occurred regarding the discussions that took place illegally and the lack of a complete audio recording.

However, "this office cautions the board to adhere to the requirements of (the Open Meetings Act) when closing a meeting, and to keep a complete verbatim record of all future closed meetings," Hartman wrote.

In regard to the action that the board took against Corbett illegally, Hartman wrote: "This office directs the board to publicly reconsider its final actions of temporarily suspending personnel changes and sending a letter to employees after placing these matters on the agenda for a properly noticed open meeting."

But revoting on those actions may not matter. The board of health in July voted to buy out the remainder of Corbett's contract as administrator, and Corbett is no longer working for the health department.

Meanwhile, the Paxton Record continues to seek the release of the audio tape of the closed meeting. The newspaper filed a separate complaint with the attorney general's office in June, alleging the health department improperly denied a Freedom of Information Act request seeking the tape's release. The Paxton Record contends the tape should be released because the meeting was improperly closed.

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