McLean County State's Attorney Questions Closed-Door Metro Zone Meeting
GLT News has learned the McLean County State's Attorney has asked the Illinois Attorney General's office for an opinion on Bloomington's closed-door Metro Zone meeting.
State's Attorney Jason Chambers is asking whether the executive session meeting violated the Open Meetings Act.
Bloomington's aldermen and mayor met in executive session on Feb. 20, citing "probable litigation"as the exception allowing them to meet behind closed doors. On Feb. 21, GLT reported the city would dissolve its involvement in the Metro Zone. During a meeting a week later, the council voted 7-2 to withdraw from the 30-year-old agreement between the City of Bloomington and the Town of Normal. The agreement shares sales and property tax revenue, as well as infrastructure and service costs on the community's west side.
GLT News received copies of letters and emails after a filing a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request with McLean County for Metro Zone-related correspondence. In a letter from McLean County State's Attorney Jason Chambers to Assistant Attorney General Christopher Boggs, Chambers cites other case law, GLT reporting on the Metro Zone, and "questions from citizens" as reasons to bring "these concerns and this matter to your (Boggs) attention."
There are six main headings in the Open Meetings Act under which government bodies can cite exceptions to allow an executive session. Under the heading of "Legal Matters," the law states "litigation must be probable, imminent or pending before the exception can be used" to meet behind closed doors. GLT's reporting stated the reason given on the agenda for the executive session was "pending or probable litigation." GLT also reported the seemingly contradictory statement by Mayor Tari Renner doubting there would be a lawsuit. Chambers mentions the contradiction in his letter to Boggs.
“My initial concern was, seeing in the media (on GLT) where they (City of Bloomington) said they went into executive session for the purposes of discussing pending or imminent litigation, but then there was the statement afterwards of, 'we doubt there’s going to be any lawsuit,'" said Chambers, during an interview with GLT. "Well, how is there pending or imminent litigation if everyone doubts there will be a lawsuit?"
On March 2, one day following GLT's March 1 FOIA request, Renner held a city hall news conference stating, among other things, that in 2014 Town of Normal Mayor Koos threatened to sue if Bloomington's council took action on the Metro Zone. Koos said he has no recollection of the conversation, although he admitted the topic could have come up. He also stated he doesn't threaten people.
Bloomington Corporation Counsel Jeff Jurgens was unavailable for an interview, but written comments from Jurgens were provided to GLT.
"On February 21, 2017, Mayor Renner made comments to a local radio station, WGLT, in an attempt to put a positive public spin on the Metro Zone dispute. Although I have not heard the full audio of the interview, given what was reported on WGLT’s website, I completely understand why the State’s Attorney was concerned and referred this to the Public Access Counselor," Jurgens stated.
Chambers said because he has a close working relationship with the city and town, he thought it was best to seek the Attorney General's office opinion "and then it's in their hands, right?" He also told GLT that no one from the Town of Normal asked him to send a letter to the Attorney General.
"I’m not going to say that it didn’t come up in a conversation with numerous people. Let’s face it. There were lots of people in town this week who were discussing, ‘Hey, how about what’s going on between Bloomington and Normal,’ right?" said Chambers. "In my field, I deal with a lot of elected officials, I deal with various attorneys, including ones in my office who deal occasionally with Open Meetings Act stuff. And it was something that was in my thought too, and it got brought up by other people. That really didn’t change my thought process, but it made it so I sent that letter sooner rather than later.”
Jurgens' written remarks provided to GLT state the city strives to comply with the law. He said he's confident that at the end of any evaluation by the Attorney General's office, the City will be found to have acted in accordance with the law.
"We have the greatest respect for the State’s Attorney’s office and understand that they have a job to do. We have always had a strong working relationship with the State’s Attorney’s office and the city is pleased that they handled the situation with such professionalism," stated Jurgens.
An opinion from the Attorney General's office could take a while. On June 3, 2016, the Attorney General's office ruled that a November 15, 2013, Bloomington City Council executive session violated the Open Meetings Act by "improperly discussing matters outside the scope of the exception" cited.
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