SWANSEA — Village trustees privately discussed staff reductions in budget talks this year that should have been held in public, according to the Illinois attorney general.
The attorney general said the Swansea Board of Trustees violated the Open Meetings Act when it went into executive session five times between February and May to discuss ways to balance the budget. Village leaders said the closed session was legal because they discussed specific employees.
In a July 11 binding opinion, the attorney general clarifies that municipalities can go into closed session to discuss specific employees' performance, but not whether they will lose their jobs because of budgetary reasons.
The attorney general typically would order the village to release the verbatim recordings of such discussions, but the permissible and impermissible topics are too intertwined.
This highlights the fundamental problem with improper closed session discussions, the binding opinion stated.
"... (A)lthough the public will be able to review the minutes summarizing the committees' discussions, it will not have the opportunity to hear the actual commentary of the individual members concerning a significant issue that should only have been discussed in an open meeting."
Mayor Jim Rauckman said he will recommend on Aug. 6 that the Village Board follow the attorney general's binding opinion and release the minutes.
"All you can do is learn from it and try to do better," Rauckman said.
The village has 35 days to release the minutes or appeal.
"We don't see the value in appealing," Rauckman said. "Even if we won, what good would it do? Maybe it will be vindicating the village of that fact? But is it worth spending all the taxpayers' money to pay for lawyers?"
Rauckman pointed out that in June trustees released unredacted minutes for two of the meetings, long before the attorney general issued a binding opinion.
In a closed session on March 19 that lasted one hour and 18 minutes, Rauckman proposed two ways to cut $197,000 from the 2012-13 budget.
* In the first plan, the village would not reappoint the current fire chief and instead promote the current deputy fire chief; the village would not fill the position of a police officer who plans to retire in December; and the village would not fill the position of another police officer who plans to retire and that village would ask that same officer to do the work currently held by a deputy code administrator.
* In the second plan, the village would not reappoint the current fire chief and the current police chief. The village would instead promote the deputies in both departments. Also, the village would not fill the position of a police officer who plans to retire in December.
More trustees supported the second option than the first option. And, Trustee Dave Thacker said at that meeting that he wanted the village to implement both plans.
In a closed session on Feb. 21 that lasted eight minutes, Rauckman told trustees he was convinced that the village does not need two full-time, paid firefighters. Thacker agreed.
Rauckman also said Fire Chief John McGuire's performance is "substandard" but he is willing to consider laying off Deputy Fire Chief Christopher Tell instead.
The police chief's position was never discussed in public, but there was a public outcry when residents learned of the cuts to the fire department. In the end, the village kept both firefighter positions and no positions in any department were affected.
Such discussions about a particular employees' job performance is an OK reason to go into closed session. But trustees cannot go into closed session simply because its budget decisions may affect specific employees.
Broader discussions like these should be held in public:
* How would staff reductions affect a certain department and the services it provides?
* What services are most valuable to residents?
* Should the village fill a position if there happens to be a retirement?
The Attorney General's Office said municipalities should be extremely clear about why they are going into executive session, and when in closed session, stick closely to the intended reason.
The village has yet to release minutes for the Personnel Committee meetings on March 5 and 19, and the Finance Committee meeting on April 2.
The Attorney General's Office did not review a verbatim recording of the April 2 meeting because the village clerk failed to start the tape recorder. The Attorney General's Office ruled it an accident.
Esther Seitz, an associate attorney with Illinois Press Association attorney Don Craven's office, said the attorney general should be applauded for providing guidance on discussions related to staffing and budgets -- a topic that arises frequently on all levels of government.
"The task of separating discussions regarding staffing levels and budgets -- which must be open -- from deliberations about specific employees -- which may be closed -- is not always simple," Seitz said. "... But it emphasizes that unless a specific employees' personnel issues are being discussed, deliberations must be open to the public."
Rauckman said the village's small staff size means it is easy to identify which employees trustees talked about in closed session, but the village can't go into closed session simply to protect those identities.
He said the Village Board will do its "absolute best" in the future to comply with the Open Meetings Act. For example, trustees will have to go into closed session to talk about a specific employee, resume the conversation about broader budget implications in open session and then go back into closed session if need be.
"In reality, no matter how cumbersome that is, we still need to comply with the Open Meetings Act," Rauckman said.
A violation of the Open Meetings Act is a Class C Misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. There also could be civil penalties.
Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at email@example.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.