Metro-East News

July 29, 2014

St. Clair County brings legal settlements into the open

The St. Clair County Board has taken a step toward more transparency in how it approves legal settlements.

The change is the result of a review of binding opinions issued by the Illinois Attorney General's Office, according to St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly. The binding opinions are administrative decisions that allow the attorney general to clarify Sunshine laws and increase disclosure.

Kelly said County Board members will now verbally announce in public session the amount agreed upon and the subject of the litigation when finalizing settlements. Previously, the board, after discussing settlements in closed session, only publicly approved a motion to "approve recommendations presented by legal counsel in executive session regarding pending litigation."

The new method reflects the state's Open Meetings Act, which says that "Final action shall be preceded by a public recital of the nature of the matter being considered and other information that will inform the public of the business being conducted."

In June, the Belleville News-Democrat reported on how the board's secret method of approving settlements possibly conflicted with the state's Open Meeting Act.

On Friday, the Attorney General's Office sent a letter to the News-Democrat, saying "further inquiry is warranted" regarding its request to review whether the County Board follows state law when approving the settlements. Steve Silverman, an assistant bureau chief with the Attorney General's Office, requested in the letter that the county provide verbatim recordings and written minutes of closed and open board meetings when elected officials discussed settlement agreements using public money.

Kelly said he was unaware of the News-Democrat's request for intervention from the Attorney General's Office and the change was not due to the newspaper's request.

Members of the St. Clair County Board have approved more than $3.3 million in legal settlements in the past 10 years, excluding workers' compensation cases, according to a News-Democrat investigation.

The new practice was put to use Monday night during the monthly County Board meeting when the board's Finance Committee approved a $30,000 settlement for former county employee Paul Jones.

Jones was a telecommunicator with the county's Emergency Management Agency. Jones had not filed litigation against the county in federal or Circuit Court, according to court records.

Litigated settlements up to $30,000 can be approved by the seven members of the board's Finance Committee, according to a county ordinance. Settlements of more than $30,000 must be approved by the full 29-member County Board.

Using the same practice, the County Board also approved the purchase of a parcel across the street from the County Jail. Previously, the board did not verbally announce the site of proposed land deals or the amount offered to purchase or sell property.

The County Board authorized the purchase of property at 703 N. Fifth St. in Belleville for $150,000.

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