Board member files Open Meetings Act lawsuit against Madison County
The controversy surrounding the Madison County Board’s first meeting will go to the Illinois Attorney General, and one of its own members has sued the county over measures to fix the problem.
The county board’s Dec. 5 meeting was a reorganizational meeting at which new and re-elected county board members were sworn in, an interim treasurer was named to replace Prenzler upon his election as board chairman and other business was conducted. Prenzler had been sworn in earlier in the day as chairman, and it was his first full board meeting.
But at the beginning of the meeting, Prenzler said he was handing the gavel over to Steve Adler, a former county board member and political ally, because of Adler’s expertise. Prenzler did not speak publicly for the rest of the meeting, and Adler called each question and vote.
Adler had stepped down from the board at the end of the previous term and at that time held no elected or appointed office. The county board ordinances state that only the county board chairman, chairman pro tem or a temporary chairman appointed by the board can preside over a meeting.
Since then, the controversy has hung over every meeting. Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons issued a written opinion to county board members that he believes the meeting was illegal, and because they were all sworn in at that meeting, it could make subsequent actions by the board susceptible to litigation.
“The fundamental issue is whether this board is properly constituted,” Gibbons said. “There is an opportunity for reasonable minds to differ on that, and that ambiguity creates the possibility of lawsuits.”
Prenzler has strongly disagreed with that opinion, stating that he was presiding over the meeting even if Adler was the one speaking. Prenzler has proposed a resolution drafted by attorney and political ally Don Weber that would declare the meeting of Dec. 5 legal by consent of the board.
The resolution went before the government relations committee last week and was approved. However, the agenda for that committee meeting stated only that the committee would consider a “County Board Resolution.” County Board Member Michael Parkinson, D-Granite City, has filed suit against Madison County under the Open Meetings Act, alleging that the issue is “a matter of grave public concern insofar as it seeks to determine if, in fact, the current Madison County Board is a lawfully constituted public body.”
Parkinson said his suit centers on the agenda item calling it “County Board Resolution.”
“Does that tell you anything about what that resolution would be?” Parkinson said.
Parkinson’s suit states that the agenda was so vague as to violate the Open Meetings Act. It asks the court to rule the actions of the government relations committee void, and any further action on the resolution, if it had taken place.
Parkinson said any further consequences “aren’t up to me,” and he would leave it with the court.
The suit was filed earlier Wednesday. Gibbons said he was handed a copy as he entered the county board meeting that evening; Prenzler was informed of its existence during the meeting.
When the resolution came up before the board Wednesday night, Art Asadorian, D-Granite City, called for a closed session because of the pending litigation. That motion was defeated 12-11 with Lisa Ciampoli, R-Collinsville, and Erika Harriss, R-Glen Carbon, abstaining.
Parkinson then made a motion to table the resolution, which succeeded 16-9. Four board members were absent Wednesday.
In the meantime, Gibbons has written a letter to the Illinois Attorney General’s office with copies of two plans to fix the problem: the resolution crafted by Prenzler and Weber, and Gibbons’ own proposal. Under Gibbons’ plan, the board would reconvene — with or without Prenzler’s participation — and the board members would take the oath again and affirm all their actions since Dec. 5.
Gibbons has asked the Illinois Attorney General’s office to advise them in a written opinion which plan would be the most advisable, or if they have a third solution.
Gibbons said he had conferred with the attorney general’s office by phone in the presence of two other attorneys in December, but is now asking for a more formal opinion given the ongoing controversy.
“To reconstitute the board ensures that everything going forward is fully lawful,” he said.
In Gibbons’ letter to the attorney general, he did not indicate which plan was his and which plan was proposed by Prenzler and Weber.
Weber said he believes the issue is a “tempest in a teapot” created by Gibbons.
“I believe that if they do nothing, they’re fine,” Weber said. “(Gibbons) just wants the political circus to go on and on.”
Weber said his interpretation of the ordinance is that the board was duly empowered on day one, whether or not they were formally sworn in. He also believes the board cannot be sworn in again, because it was supposed to happen Dec. 5. Instead he referred to his proposed resolution as a compromise.
“This is the theater of the absurd, and only for political purposes,” Weber said. “With one step we say we didn’t do anything wrong, but just in case, we’re approving everything we’ve done before.”
Weber said he does not formally work for the county. He said he is a “friend to the board” and has donated his services to work on the resolution.
Prenzler continues to maintain that the Dec. 5 meeting was legal. In an interview last week, he said his resolution is intended simply to put the issue to rest. “It’s an issue I’m bored with, frankly,” Prenzler said. “I did preside over that meeting ... It’s just silly.”
Prenzler said that in retrospect, having Adler preside over the meeting was “a bad idea,” and he would not have done it that way if he had it to do over again.