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Opinion | Local Government officials are FAILING COVID-19 Open Meetings Test across Illinois

Bradley, Manteno, Frankfort fail, Bourbonnais does digital Open Meetings right

Why is this so damn confusing?

On March 13th, Governor Pritzker made a change to the Illinois’ Open Meetings Act to put a halt to the spread of COVID-19 across the state. The change occurred during his gubernatorial disaster proclamation, which encouraged public bodies to postpone business when possible. 

The only change made during the executive order was the ‘physical quorum’ requirement, allowing for board members and the public to be remote to hold a meeting. That doesn’t prevent them from allowing members of the public to attend, or prevent access to the press.

In other words, all access digital meetings, good.

In person meetings, limited access meetings, bad. 

Yet throughout Kankakee County and the State of Illinois, representatives have found a way to ignore this, with that unique charming combination of sheer arrogance and pure zest no one would pay attention.

The final stamp of disapproval came Monday when Village of Bradley officials conducted their meeting at the Village of Bradley Municipal Building. Bradley officials had exactly one month to make arrangements to hold a digital meeting in the advancement of Public Health, yet chose to ignore this.  

But don’t worry; Bradley’s board meeting videos are coming soon…

This isn’t a feature film advert, people need this information from local government first hand in real-time now more than ever. [Image taken via Village of Bradley’s Website on 4/14/20]

On April 9th, after not seeing a date for the next board meeting for Bradley, I reached out to Bradley’s Village Administrator Catherine Wojnarowski for comment. At the time, no agenda had been listed on the Village’s website for the next public meeting. There were no options on how residents could view the meeting in a digital forum or how residents could participate in a digitally held meeting.

No response was given as of Tuesday morning.  

But early Monday, April 13th, just hours before the newly announced meeting, a COVID-19 Board Meeting article appeared on the Village of Bradley’s website.

“In compliance with the COVID-19 Governor’s executive orders, the Village will limit public access to 10 people in the Board room, including staff and elected officials and comply with 6-food social distancing,” the Village statement read. “The rooms will offer live streaming of both the Public Hearing and Board Meeting.”

The ‘rooms’ were special viewing rooms the Village of Bradley set up for Public as to not interact in the same space with Village Officials. So…where was that live streaming to the rest of the world? They realize in Bradley the internet is a thing, right? I mean hell; we’ve had Facetime for a decade now, Skype and YouTube even longer. This isn’t revolutionary technology anymore.  

Bradley officials chose instead to use a crisis to alienate the outside public during a health pandemic.  

Alterations to the Open Meetings Act were issued in the best interest of the public, via Executive Order, not recommending, the allowance of using digital meetings and digital public participation in the interest of Public Health. It’s something the small-town minded folks at the Village of Bradley not only chose to ignore but flat out disregarded in substitution for the sake of local community know-it-all-isms over community health recommendations by State elected officials.

Further pushing the issue at hand, last night’s Bradley agenda included recognitions of local officials for their time in public service. A possible invitation that brought with it not only further possible public participation in the room, but an invitation for a strong potential spread of COVID-19 within local government levels amid a worldwide pandemic.

 ‘Viewing rooms’ only allowed a concerned public to be in a condensed space in the name of closed-circuit television doesn’t necessarily amount to the full public transparency modern tech allows the 21st Century. Neither does the sudden ‘public comment’ opportunity presented just hours before a meeting.

Bradley was not the only town disregarding the change to the Illinois’ Open Meetings Act. Manteno went a similar route last Monday night, with much more transparency. Manteno officials allowed for the streaming of Village Board meetings, as they normally do, however still attended regular seats inside a public gathering format, limiting attendees to 10 and practicing social distancing standards.

“Things are changing, they’re changing rapidly, they’re changing fast, and hopefully they’re going to start changing for the better over the course of the next few weeks, but there’s no guarantee of that. You know we don’t’ know how long this is going to last.” Manteno Mayor Tim Nugent said. “Hopefully we’re abiding by the guidelines and still being able to go ahead and conduct the business that we need to conduct.” 

That’s great officials chose to be safe for their own health and show some form of normality among the local populous, but by choosing to hold meetings in a physical location, the Village did not allow for public comment allowed in Illinois Open Meeting Act.

“Public Participation, we don’t have any.” Manteno’s Mayor added last Monday with a glance across the room to an empty microphone stand.  

I wonder why? Could it be that as public officials you are speaking out of both sides of your mouth? Telling people to limit trips and ‘stay safe’ all the while inviting controversy into this type of government setting that on March 13th was asked to be avoided by Illinois’ Governor?

In Will County, Frankfort had its struggles as well with technology, choosing to hold a ZOOM remote meeting yet choosing to allow the public not to participate in comments. “At this time we would typically ask for any comments from the public about those items. I doubt there would be any even if we had a public that could suddenly phone in,” said Village of Frankfort Mayor Jim Holland after approving a line item on the agenda.

No, not phone. But they could comment if allowed, as Bourbonnais officials proved on April 6th.

The Village of Bourbonnais held a meeting that took a very different turn from others over the past two weeks, taking full advantage of changes to the Open Meetings Act. A Zoom digital meeting was held at that date which allowed all board members and outside parties with a link to connect and listen in, even participate in public comment.  

The meeting was posted with an outside link days before the Village’s social media outlets, allowing for public viewing and participation.

“This is our first attempt at doing a board meeting this way, so it’s going to be a little interesting. I think everybody needs to try and limit the amount of people talking at any given time. We’ll try to slow things down a bit so we can get through this,” said Bourbonnais Mayor Paul Shore on Monday. “I appreciate everyone that’s attending if there is a public out there attending, welcome to them also too.”

Towards the end of the Village’s meeting, public comment was allowed. Village Administrators un-muted all parties microphones in session and waiting nearly 30 seconds before concluding the evenings’ digital gathering. 

It’s a textbook crisis management example set by Bourbonnais that Bradley, Manteno, Frankfort and every surrounding community in Illinois can not only learn from but also copy and emulate before their violations of the Illinois’ Open Meetings Act amount to something no one cares to deal with.

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