The Cahokia Village Board of Trustees violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act by prohibiting a member of the public from addressing the board in August, according to Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office.
A decision released by Assistant Attorney General Edie Steinberg said the Village Board violated the Open Meetings Act at its meeting on Aug. 25 “by prohibiting a member of the public from addressing the board.”
In his ruling, Steinberg insists that requiring members of the public to fill out a form in order to be granted permission to speak during a public comment session of a meeting is not allowed under the Open Meetings Act.
“... Rather, a public body must allow an opportunity during open meetings for any person to address the public officials present,” Steinberg wrote in his opinion.
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Repeated attempts to reach Mayor Curtis McCall Jr. for comment were unsuccessful. Village Board attorney Robert Sprague also could not be reached for comment. Each received copies of the decision.
Kim Diers, a Cahokia resident, submitted a request for review to the Attorney General’s office, alleging that “a citizen who was unable to submit a question asked that she be allowed to address the board and was denied by Mayor Curtis McCall. And then the mayor turned around and ordered the police chief to have her removed from the building,” Diers wrote.
A public body must allow an opportunity during open meetings for any person to address the public officials present.
Edie Steinberg, assistant attorney general
The woman who was removed has not been publicly identified, but it was not Diers who was removed from the meeting.
Shortly after taking office, McCall created a new ordinance that required any resident who wanted to address the board to submit their questions in writing seven hours before a meeting. Cahokia Village Board meetings in the past have been marked by raucous debate and political divisiveness.
In November, McCall had police remove Village Board member Jerry Nichols from a public meeting after Nichols raised questions about the mayor’s hiring of several employees who were convicted felons, and a personal assistant.
McCall said at the time it was improper for Nichols to discuss personnel issues during an open meeting, and that Nichols was being disruptive and refused multiple requests by the mayor to be seated.
A video shot by Diers showed two Cahokia police officers taking Nichols by the arm and leading him out of the council chambers to a room in the back, where Nichols said, “I was told to go home.”
At the time, McCall said, “As mayor and the presiding officer, I have the authority to ensure that the public respect the decorum of the meetings. Any person whose behavior disrupts the conduct of the meeting is subject to be removed.”
“Moreover, it appears that the Board has misinterpreted OMA’s (the Open Meetings Act’s) public comment requirement as providing for a controller question-and-answer session, as opposed to a forum where each person may speak his or her mind. The Attorney General has concluded that section 2.06(g) of OMA “requires that all public bodies subject ot the Act provide an opportunity for members of the public to address public officials at open meetings. ...”
The village’s public comment rules provide that:
▪ “Persons desiring to address the Village Board of the Village of Cahokia shall fill out a form entitled “Request for Citizen comments.” The request for citizen comments form may be obtained from the office of the village clerk. The (form) shall be delivered to the office of the village clerk before 12 noon on the day of the meeting in order to be allowed to speak at that meeting.”
▪ “No persons addressing the Village Board may be allowed to speak more than two minutes unless the mayor allows an extension of time. The mayor, as presiding officer, may in his discretion shorten the time. The mayor, in his discretion, may limit the number of people allowed to speak.”
Diers, in her request to the attorney general, said the woman at the Aug. 25 meeting was not being rude or disruptive, but acknowledged that she had filled out a request to speak ahead of time.
Diers she was happy that the attorney general ruled in her favor, and she hopes the board will follow the rules in the future.
Steinberg, in writing the attorney general’s opinion, said the Open Meetings Act requires that all public bodies subject to the Act provide an opportunity for members of the public to address public officials at public meetings.
Diers said the form has a place where citizens can put their questions in writing.
“The form that must be filled out says nothing about comments, and even if it did, would that make it legal for him not to allow citizens to make a comment at a public board meeting?” Diers wrote in her query to the attorney general’s office.
Diers also forwarded a video to the attorney general’s office highlighting what she captured at the Aug. 25 meeting.
The form that must be filled out says nothing about comments, and even if it did, would that make it legal for him not to allow citizens to make a comment at a public board meeting?
Kim Diers, Cahokia resident
Steinberg said his office looked at the video.
“The video shows the mayor stating the name of each person who submitted a question in advance of the meeting, prompting them to ask questions. After each question, the mayor provided an answer but did not allow any follow-up questions or comments, stating that questions had to have been submitted by noon that day,” the decision said.
“As the mayor finished with the pre-submitted questions, a woman said, ‘Excuse me, I would like to make a comment.’ The unnamed woman was told that if she wanted to make a comment, she would have to submit a question by noon the date of the meeting,” the Attorney General’s office wrote.
“After some additional dialogue during which the woman repeated her request to comment and others at the meeting commented in defense of the woman, saying she had the right to address the board, “the mayor signaled with his hand in an apparent gesture to have the woman removed from the meeting,” the attorney general’s office wrote.
And although it was not shown on video, both the mayor and Diers agreed that the unnamed woman was escorted out of the meeting, Steinberg said.
“At no time did the woman raise her voice or use profanity, and the entire exchange took less than a minute,” Steinberg said in the decision.