Metro-East News

St. Clair Township faces new open meetings violation complaint

One new complaint of an Open Meetings Act violation has been filed against St. Clair Township, bringing the number of complaints against the township to about 24.

The complaints were filed with the attorney general’s public access counselor, Sarah Pratt, alleging a violation took place when some members of the public were kept out of a Board of Trustees meeting on Feb. 24.

The board’s meeting room within the township building at 107 Service St. in Swansea has a maximum occupancy of 76 people. Members of the public who attended the February meeting were asked to sign in on a numbered sheet of paper, which Township Supervisor Dave Barnes said they are asked to do at every meeting. After 76 names appeared on the list, the doors were closed, 10 minutes before the meeting was called to order, and people left outside were not able to enter the locked building.

The Feb. 24 meeting was the first township meeting after residents were notified about a planned increase to their sewer rates if their waste-water is treated at the Swansea sewer plant.

Barnes said it was the fire marshal’s decision to close the doors.

“He told me how many (people) we could have (inside),” Barnes said. “I feel that it’s better to sit here and have this conversation with you about the doors being closed than it would be if we’d had a fire and people got stampeded and killed in a fire because there were too many people in here.”

Swansea Fire Chief John McGuire said it is “definitely not true” that it was the fire marshal’s decision.

“I was not at that meeting and there was no representative from the fire department at that meeting,” McGuire said. “It was his (Barnes’) decision alone to close those doors and lock those people out.”

Barnes said the doors were closed because the room was at maximum occupancy. He said he did not know the maximum occupancy before a few days prior to the Feb. 24 meeting.

“It’s always been something that I wanted to know because, if you look back when we were doing union negotiations, we had a room full,” Barnes said.

“It was a good time to make sure,” he added.

St. Clair County Board member Bob Trentman, who resigned from the St. Clair Township Board of Trustees in 2012, said during the February meeting that everyone could move a few feet away to a heated warehouse where everyone wanting to attend the meeting could easily fit.

Barnes said moving to the warehouse could have endangered residents.

“I didn’t give it any thought because there’s danger. There’s equipment back there. Someone could get hurt,” he said. “I didn’t really expect that many people. The people that are saying they expected this many, I would like to see their crystal ball because then we would know every meeting how many people were going to attend. I had no idea we were going to have that many people.”

Township residents had previously packed into Swansea’s meeting room, which could not accommodate all of them, for a Feb. 17 meeting. Barnes said he had heard estimates that about 50 to 60 people attended that meeting, which is less than the maximum occupancy for the township’s meeting room.

John “Skip” Kernan, resident and township highway commissioner, said when the board goes into executive session meetings, it goes to the warehouse.

“If it's so dangerous, what are you doing sending us back there every time we go into executive session?” Kernan said.

McGuire said he would not have been comfortable having residents attend a meeting in a warehouse.

The safety of the people attending meetings, Barnes said, is “more important than meeting public opinion.”

“They would have been more outraged if we would have had a fire in here and they couldn’t get out. Then we would be talking about loss of life or someone getting injured and you and I would probably not be sitting here, because I’d be in trouble,” he said. “I’d rather be on the safe side and do what the fire marshal says than take chances.”

Resident Patsy Tarvin said issues of access in the township are evident in “shutting and locking doors and refusing to talk to the other citizens who came to meet and who were refused entrance.”

“The (trustees) were warned beforehand,” she said. “They knew we were all coming. ... Space should have been made for them.”

Trentman said he made a request six days before the meeting to be put on the meeting agenda and that the request was denied. Barnes said that was “because we have public comments” built into each meeting.

Trentman said, “The reason they don’t want us on the agenda is so they don’t have to answer questions.”

People who spoke during public comments at the February meeting were chosen, given roughly two minutes to address the board, and board members could choose to respond or not.

Tarvin said the way comments were handled was problematic.

“As a citizen sitting in that (Feb. 24) meeting, what I saw was people being shut down because he didn’t want to hear them,” Tarvin said. “He just didn’t want to hear what they had to say. I don’t understand. If I had a job anywhere else in society and I didn’t do my job and I didn’t listen to the people that are my boss — and we the citizens are his boss and he’s not listening to us — he needs to be booted out of office.”

Barnes said “no one was shut off” during the meeting.

“The OMA violations (complaints) were sent, I guess, because that meeting’s size created a situation that didn’t need to be and after the questions were asked and answered, they left, so the concern wasn’t that much about the new business,” Barnes said. “It was just someone had fed them information to get them here to voice their opinions, and everyone got to voice their opinions that wanted to.”

According to a letter from Assistant Attorney General Shari West of the Public Access Bureau to Township City Clerk Brenda Reed, the township was asked to respond in writing to allegations and provide a copy of the meeting notice, agenda and minutes.

“This office has determined that further inquiry is necessary,” the letter states.

Barnes said the township has responded to everything from the Attorney General’s office.

The investigation is still ongoing. Annie Thompson, deputy press secretary, said the office is working to reach a decision as quickly as possible.

“Our office receives thousands of these complaints every year,” Thompson said, and the time frame for investigations can vary.

Barnes said he does not blame the constituents for “the frustration, the anger, the questions,” but he is “not sure that everyone that complained about not being able to get in was actually outside.”

According to the Open Meetings Act, meetings must be open to the public unless the public body is considering any of the act’s 31 excepted subjects that allow — but not require — the public body to close the meeting. The public body is also required to cite the specific exemption that allows the closure of the meeting.

Complaints are filed in the form of Requests for Review by the Public Access Counselor, which must be filed within 60 days after the alleged violation takes place. A violation of the Act is a Class C misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

Barnes said he does not expect to hear back from the Attorney General’s office.

“I expect it to be clear with the answers that were provided to the Attorney General. There was no wrongdoing,” he said.

Contact reporter Lexi Cortes at acortes@bnd.com or 618-239-2514.

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