Metro-East News

Attorney general says St. Clair Township violated Open Meetings Act

St. Clair Township Supervisor David Barnes speaks during a meeting of the township board.
St. Clair Township Supervisor David Barnes speaks during a meeting of the township board. BND file photo

About two years after complaints were filed, the state Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s Office has determined the St. Clair Township Board violated the Open Meetings Act when it held a meeting and did not have enough space to accommodate the large crowd in attendance.

The decision, handed down last month, cites warnings the township received that a lot of people planned to attend the Feb. 24, 2015, meeting after the township had recently approved increased sewer rates. The township meeting room has space for up to 76 people. But people had requested it be moved to a larger location such as the adjacent warehouse or Whiteside Middle School.

“Although the board is not required to ensure that every meeting is accessible to every member of the public who wishes to attend, (the Open Meetings Act) requires a public body take reasonable measures to respond to signals of increased public interest in order to ensure that its meetings are reasonably accessible to the public,” Assistant Attorney General Teresa Lim wrote in her decision. “This office concludes that the board violated the ... OMA by failing to hold that meeting in an open and convenient location.”

Township Supervisor Dave Barnes declined comment Wednesday.

Although the board is not required to ensure that every meeting is accessible to every member of the public who wishes to attend, (the Open Meetings Act) requires a public body take reasonable measures to respond to signals of increased public interest in order to ensure that its meetings are reasonably accessible to the public. This office concludes that the board violated the ... OMA by failing to hold that meeting in an open and convenient location.

Assistant Attorney General Teresa Lim

The controversial sewer rates were not on the Feb. 24 agenda, and the township had said there wasn’t sufficient time to move the meeting.

However, former board Member Jaynie Wells emailed Barnes four days prior to the meeting to ask him to accommodate the larger crowd.

Lim wrote there was ample time for the board to change the location in advance of the meeting and give proper public notification.

When the meeting room was at capacity, one person was allowed to enter each time a person left, and the person who left was not permitted to re-enter. The township also made no effort to provide a speaker system in an adjacent room, so the public could listen in, the decision said.

The board had two St. Clair County sheriff’s deputies at the meeting to assist with security.

A previous meeting on Feb. 4, which involved discussion on the sewer rates, was highly attended, but had been moved to Whiteside Middle School.

Struggling families get their water shut off in a New York minute over an unpaid sewer bills. Dave Barnes could hire security and chain the doors shut at a township meeting and gets by with nothing but a slap on the wrist, and it takes years to find out he couldn’t do it.

St. Clair County Board Member Bob Trentman

Even though there was a violation, the attorney general’s office did not impose any penalties or mandate any actions by St. Clair Township.

“In this instance, there is no corrective action that can rectify the Board’s violation,” Lim wrote. “However, this office cautions the board to be mindful of its obligation to anticipate instances in which adjustments to accommodations may be necessary to provide the public with reasonable access to its meetings, and to plan accordingly.”

County Board Member Bob Trentman, who lives in St. Clair Township and has led the fight against the sewer rate increases, was one of the residents who filed the Open Meetings Act complaint. He said he was upset that there is no real penalty for the township.

“Struggling families get their water shut off in a New York minute over an unpaid sewer bill,” Trentman said. “Dave Barnes could hire security and chain the doors shut at a township meeting and gets by with nothing but a slap on the wrist, and it takes years to find out he couldn’t do it.”

Joseph Bustos: 618-239-2451, @JoeBReporter

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