The Cook County state’s attorney’s office is investigating what it says are violations of the Illinois Open Meetings Act by the previous Morton Grove Library board. If the violations were intentional, they could constitute criminal violations of the act.
The current board requested the review. The office found that 11 of 19 executive sessions conducted from Dec. 10, 2009 to April 14, 2011 violated the Open Meetings Act. Several of the recordings of those meetings are damaged or missing in entirety. The details of the violations were noted in an Aug. 2 letter from Assistant State's Attorney Sara Hynes to Library Board Treasurer Catherine Peters.
Patch received a copy of the letter, and verified its authenticity with the state's attorney's office.
“In particular, the Library Board failed to keep detailed written minutes required by section 2.06(a) of the act, and also failed to keep a verbatim record of all their closed meetings by means of audio or video recording, also required by that section,” the letter said. “We note that these violations took place during the administration of the previous library board, which was reconstituted with new membership following the April 5, 2011 consolidated election.”
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The office decided against pursuing civil action, the letter said, because the current board showed through “comprehensive reporting of the past closed session violations,” that it is “taking positive steps to remedy the past violations.”
However, Hynes wrote that she is forwarding the issue to the office's public integrity unit to see if the violations were intentional and thus potentially criminal.
The letter addressed references concerns raised by members of the current board about possible intentional violation of the act by members of the previous board.
“This conduct could give rise to a criminal violation of the act, as well as violation of the criminal code,” Hynes wrote, explaining that the public integrity unit would look into it.
In the meantime, the letter recommends that the board obtain Open Meeting Act training materials. However Peters said that, “it was not lack of training” that caused the violations by the previous library board.
“They were fully aware of their duty under the law regarding the tapes,” she said.
Previous board members defend efforts to tape the meetings
Dan Hoffman was the previous library board’s secretary and served the same role for the current board before stepping down shortly after voting against a successful motion in July to procure a separation agreement with former executive director Ben Schapiro.
“I have no explanation for why the tapes weren't there,” Hoffman said.
He said he was under the impression that “all of our executive session meetings were taped.”
“Whether [the recorder] records or not isn’t known until after the meeting is over,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman said the recently elected B-PAC members of the board were the main drivers behind requesting the state’s attorney’s review. B-PAC refers to four board members voted into office in April; it’s an acronym of the last names of Paul Berg, Catherine Peters, Albers and David Calimag.
Hoffman said the whole situation is a case of B-PAC “looking for that smoking gun” to show some wrongdoing on the part of the previous board.
“I can guarantee you it’s not there,” said Hoffman, who was in charge of recording meetings in his role as secretary.
B-PAC members “are being accusatory and vengeful,” he said, adding that the damaged and missing recordings could be due to “bad batteries” or some other equipment malfunction.
Board member Art Goldstein was also part of the previous board and said he was “astonished” at hearing news of the missing executive session recordings.
“They were all recorded as far as I was concerned. And they were kept in a locked cabinet. And I cannot imagine how they were lost,” he said. “Because nothing was ever said in there that wasn’t reported afterwards.”
Hoffman maintains that there was nothing discussed in those missing sessions that would have shown any wrongdoing, and pointed out that written minutes were still produced.
“Nothing’s happened at this library in the last 75 years that tapes would have to be missing,” he said.
As the state’s attorney’s office continues its probe, Peters assured Patch that the current board won’t repeat history when it comes to abiding by the Open Meetings Act.
“We are committed to making sure everything is done by the book,” she said.
Executive session tapes released
On July 14 the library board released executive session tapes from Oct. 12, 2010, and Nov. 11, 2010, causing a stir, as executive session tapes are not typically released to the public. The tapes are available at the Morton Grove Public Library.
The Oct. 12 recording features a discussion exploring potential avenues for funding the construction of a new library building. The Local Library Act states that building plans have to be approved by the village, and that the village must be asked to issue bonds to finance the construction. Approval would hinge on a public referendum. However, in the recording, the board talks about obtaining a debt certificate to potentially bypass community input. This measure provides a way to raise the library’s tax levy over the course of several years to pay for a new building.
“The blowback is a couple of you may lose your seats,” said a voice in that recording, apparently former director Ben Schapiro. “But it will already be a done deal at that point.”
Hoffman alleged that the current board, specifically B-PAC members, are trying to prove that the former board sought to take the public out of the conversation — even though discussions were merely speculative.
He said that it’s a “perfectly legit and legal option,” but an option the board decided against because it appeared “shady.”
Nevertheless, “that’s what facilitated the removal of our director,” Hoffman said.
Asked why he thinks the tapes were released, Goldstein said, “I’d be guessing.”
“I really don’t know,” he said.
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