Elburn officials briefed on ‘sunshine laws’

By on May 22, 2009

Presentation held on Freedom of Information, Open Meetings acts
by Martha Quetsch
Most Elburn village officials attended a presentation Saturday regarding the so-called “sunshine laws,” which ensure public access to public meetings and documents.

Village President Dave Anderson asked village staff members and trustees to attend the meeting about the Illinois Open Meetings (OMA) Act and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

“I believe that this is extremely important,” Anderson said.

Village attorneys Brian O’Connor and Bill Thomas gave the presentation during a special meeting of the Committee of the Whole. They said it is imperative that the village follow OMA and FOIA requirements.

The attorneys said consequences for violations include sanctions, fines and jail time. In addition, a violation would negatively impact the village government’s reputation.

“A violation is a black eye on local government…it indicates they are hiding something,” Thomas said.

The state’s attorney’s office typically investigates alleged OMA and FOIA violations.

Under the OMA, if three members of the Elburn Village Board (the majority of a quorum) gather and discuss any village business, whether in-person or by video, e-mail, phone, chat rooms or instant messaging, it is a public meeting for which an agenda and public notice is required, Thomas said.

“That could be three trustees at a dinner party, talking about village business,” Thomas said.

He advised public officials to be cautious.

“In order to avoid any appearance of violating the Open Meetings Act, you need to look around and see who else is there whenever you are going to discuss village business,” Thomas advised the trustees.

Electronic communication has broadened the scope of public meetings, Thomas said. He suggested that public officials be careful when using this type of communication.

“Our advice is to be as conservative as possible,” Thomas said.

Under FOIA, an e-mail that includes a mention of any village business could be subject to exposure in its entirety, even if it contains a personal message, too.

“Be careful, those e-mails going out there could become public record,” Thomas said.

FOIA dictates that any document, even a draft, is subject to public exposure if it is mentioned during a public meeting, O’Connor said.

Those attending the presentation included village trustees and many staffers. New trustee Jerry Schmidt said the presentation was worthwhile.

“I learned a lot, especially about the Open Meetings Act,” Schmidt said.

New Village Administrator Erin Willrett was not at the meeting. Anderson said he granted her request for absence due to personal reasons.