Court revives Open Meetings case against Clark County
Favoring the Edgar County Watchdogs, an Illinois Appellate Court recently reversed a circuit court’s judgment on a park district’s appeal for dismissal, finding the case challenging the district's actions concerning a closed meeting valid.
Denying allegations of a “frivolous” lawsuit intended to “harass” a civic entity, Edgar County Watchdogs this week alerted the public to the status change in their ongoing dissent over an initially denied sanction reversed by the Springfield court.
Kirk Allen and John Kraft, who operate the “Illinois Leaks” website, originally filed an action against Illinois’ Clark County Park District when its board allegedly “took action in a public meeting without properly notifying the public what they were voting on or what action they were taking” on Feb. 17, 2015.
In their grievance, the Edgar County Watchdogs (ECW) cited the state’s Open Meetings Act, Section 2(e), which mandates that organizations such as the park district board must properly inform the public of their actions or votes.
Their chief complaint, according to court documents, was that “among other things, the board provided an insufficient explanation — referred to as a 'public recital' in the Act — of items X and XI before voting to approve them.”
Items “X” and “XI” referred to board approval of lease rates and revised covenants, respectively; the agenda included no other details on those items.
Court records indicate that the board motioned and voted to approve the two items, but that board Vice President Ron Stone demurred when asked to reiterate the motions, saying, “They gotta get recorded at the courthouse first. I’m sorry” rather than describing what had just happened.
Allen and Kraft filed a complaint for injunctive and declaratory relief against the board on the following day on grounds that the board had violated the Open Meetings Act; specifically, that it had not given the public enough information and had made decisions in executive session, which they said contradicted the law.
The Clark County Park District then filed a motion in March 2015 to dismiss ECW’s lawsuit along with an official motion for sanctions. The district alleged that the plaintiffs filed a frivolous suit because they disagreed with the board’s plan to create a subdivision in Mill Creek Park near the city of Marshall.
Initially intended as a pro se or self-representing suit, the dispute escalated after the park district countersued ECW, claiming not only that its members had filed the complaint to harass the board, but also that the objection was inherently frivolous.
ECW then hired Jacob Smallhorn, Tapella & Eberspacher LLC of Charleston in July 2015 to represent the matter on their behalf, filing an amended complaint and calling for an appeal of the board’s actions. In August, the board filed a motion to dismiss. Following subsequent hearings, the trial court allowed the board’s motion to be dismissed, but denied motions for sanctions.
The reversal, filed Nov. 16, was authorized with the Honorable Judge Millard Scott Everhart presiding, with Justices Robert Steigmann, Thomas Harris and Thomas Appleton concurring with the decision.
“The trial court granted the board’s motion to dismiss the complaint,” the justices wrote in their consensus. “Plaintiffs appeal. We reverse.”
In their opinion, the judges reiterated the Open Meetings Act’s general intent and their subsequent interpretation of its language. Citing but a few preceding cases, the court said that “In this case, there is no question that the board’s votes to approve the lease rates and the covenants were both final actions.”
“However, the court found insufficient action as described originally in the first lawsuit,” they said. “The public was uninformed of what was being leased. Was it canoes? Was it camping equipment? Was it real property being developed into a housing subdivision? Who knows?”
With the latest change in status, the case is expected to progress through the circuit court.
Edward County Watchdogs was founded in July 2011 to advance truth, transparency and accountability in Illinois. Its “Illinois Leaks” maintains a tip line for news and has been featured in Forbes magazine.