Peru City Council held 46 closed meetings in the last three years. That’s about 15 per year, or one closed session every three to four meetings. Some councils and boards hold one nearly every time they meet, so Peru’s numbers are not shocking in this regard.
What is unusual is the relative newness of the closed session to the affairs of Peru council. Prior to November 2009, the council rarely held closed meetings, sometimes called “executive sessions.”
Closed meetings infer secrecy but some topics deserve secrecy. The Illinois Attorney General’s Office says so. Victims in sexual harassment cases should not be identified in an open meeting. An employee requesting time off because of a medical condition should not be identified in an open meeting. The Attorney General’s Office lists two dozen such exceptions to the Open Meetings Act, exceptions allowed for discussion in private.
Time spent in the open
Peru council’s streak of avoiding closed sessions ended Nov. 18, 2009. Alderman Bob Ankiewicz motioned to enter executive session to discuss personnel matters. The council and Doug Schweickert, the city’s attorney, determined the request was valid and they entered closed session.
Resident Lois Carroll follows the council and manages a blog about city government and happenings. She posted a list of the last three year’s closed meetings on her blog and it sparked discussion.
Carroll agrees with the usefulness and legality of closed meetings but has concerns.
“I do think it meets the letter of the law,” she said. “My concern is there’s a lack of conversation in public council meetings and with the frequency of these closed sessions, is there a correlation? I’m just saying there are a significant number of very short council meetings and large number of closed sessions.”
The council has less to discuss in open meetings because many issues are hashed out in committees, Mayor Scott Harl said. Further, Harl examined meeting minutes going back a couple decades and found that closed meetings were rare but did occur during the tenure of Mayor Don Baker, Harl said.
Meetings in the 2000s and earlier often were poorly attended by the public. Every other meeting was categorized as “informal” to discuss issues without voting on them. The council, city attorney and the press developed an understanding that sensitive or private information that came out during these meetings would not be reported.
“You did not have the general public coming to as many meetings and you certainly did not have the forces of the media,” said Alderman Dave Potthoff.
Collective bargaining also was absent, he said. In 2008 two unions, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Operating Engineers Local 150, began organizing the city’s employees.
“Recently the city has dealt with a number of collective bargaining contracts which necessitates closed meetings,” Potthoff said. If discussion on these matters were held openly, the city could be sued by a union, Potthoff said.
Secrecy can be a good thing
Closed meetings should be used to protect the city from liability, such as with real estate prices, personnel issues, pending litigation, collective bargaining and the like, Potthoff said.
“Sometimes those meetings get heated and argumentative,” Potthoff said.
“My only goal is to protect the taxpayers of the city of Peru,” Potthoff said. “It’s important for the city to abide by closed meetings and use them the least amount of times that we can.”
In 2001 the council and the media struggled with a mandate proposed by the Illinois General Assembly requiring proceedings of closed meetings to be recorded verbatim by audio, video or a court reporter. It placed municipal clerks, the record keepers, in the hot seat. The language was dropped from the bill that year but eventually passed and today, Peru makes audio recording of all closed meetings.
“That was a different time,” Ankiewicz said. “There are laws on the books now that call for closed meetings for certain topics. I concur with the laws of the land and we abide by them. It’s needed so you can talk about it without open discussion with the public and the press.”
The council must hold all votes on any issues in open session. In January 2010 the Open Meetings Act was amended and in addition to the list of issues permitted for discussion in closed meetings, the act also listed issues that are not permitted for open discussion.
“There are items you cannot discuss on the floor,” Harl said. “There’s a privacy act that you must adhere to.”
Harl said obeying the Open Meetings Act and provisions for closed meetings does not contradict his effort at transparency.
“We do everything in the open but we also do everything by the book,” Harl said.
Greater public attendance at council meetings “is wonderful” but heightens the need to hold closed sessions for appropriate topics, Harl said.
“Because it is easier to talk in that situation, you’re also very legal with what you’re doing and what you’re talking about,” Harl said.
Jeff Dankert can be reached at (815) 220-6977 or email@example.com.