The Illinois attorney general has ruled against McLean County's attempt to hold closed sessions of the county board Finance Committee to talk about the salaries of the coroner and auditor.
The attorney general has ordered the county to provide un-redacted transcriptions of audio recordings of two executive sessions to Auditor Michelle Anderson.
The binding opinion comes after Anderson objected to the closed sessions earlier this year. The county tried to assert an exception to the Open Meetings Act saying Anderson is a county employee and that salary discussions of employees happen in closed session.
County Board Finance Committee Chair David Selzer had called for the closed session. Selzer said there was "no malicious intent to hide facts from the public." It was rather to protect the individuals individuals involved with those discussions, he said.
"We have gone into executive session any time payroll items and various performance issues have been discussed for anybody who we consider to be an employee. And we have considered countywide elected officials to be employees. They are covered under worker's comp. They're covered under really everything any other employee is covered under with the exception of unemployment insurance. We never felt it was appropriate to talk about a benefit level or performance level for anyone in open session," said Selzer.
Anderson told GLT she is disappointed the board would hold a meeting in violation of the Open Meetings Act.
Selzer said that type of meeting has been standard for 20 years. But Anderson said not so. In her 11 years at the county an elected official's salary comes forward through the committee process every two years, she said. This past summer was her sixth cycle.
"We have never had closed meetings like this. I have never participated in the decision. It's usually just the board making the decision on the recommendation of the county administrator. Mr. Selzer decided to do this, I guess, as his way to assert control over the situation and it has never been done before," said Anderson.
The county sets elected officials salaries to take effect at the start of the next elected term. State law prevents changing a salary in the middle of a term.
Anderson also noted this cycle of pay review is Selzer's first as Finance Committee chair.
The County Board on a mixed vote earlier this year rejected a proposal to lower the pay for the auditor and increase it for the coroner.
At that time Selzer called for a salary study for other countywide elected officials, saying the duties and size of the offices might have changed over the years.
But, in the ruling, the attorney general's Public Access Counselor said a county auditor is an elected official bound by statute, not county regulations. An elected official is not an employee, because the county cannot hire or fire that person, according to the opinion.
One citation from what is known as the "Heller" case outlines the reason for that buffering.
"The court also expressly rejected the county board's argument that (the law) gave the county board the power to oversee the day to-day operations of any county officer. To the contrary, the court emphasized that the General Assembly clearly intended for the county officer to operate free from interference of the county board by providing the county officer with a specific term of office which only permitted removal for cause after judicial proceedings, and by setting the duties of the county officer in statute," according to the opinion.
The ruling indicated the county board cannot interfere in the duties of elected officials or define them, it can only decide in consultation with the elected official how much staff support each office gets. And the county board cannot oversee the operations within the office, according to the attorney general.
"We need more transparency in government. This meeting violated everything the Open Meetings Act stands for," said Anderson.
The county has 35 days from the Oct. 30 opinion to appeal the case in either Cook or Sangamon County circuit courts.
McLean County State's Attorney Don Knapp said it will take him a couple days to review the binding opinion.
Anderson's term expires in 2020. Selzer is running for re-election on Nov. 6. Selzer's opponent is Democrat Elizabeth Johnston.
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