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Evanston violated Open Meetings Act with June council session on minimum wage, attorney general says

Thursday, August 17, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Genevieve Bookwalter, Pioneer Press

The Illinois Attorney General's office notified Evanston officials Monday that the city violated the state Open Meetings Act when it held a June 30 City Council meeting to discuss the Cook County minimum wage and sick leave ordinances.

"The Public Access Bureau concludes that the Evanston City Council violated OMA (Open Meetings Act) by failing to provide the public with at least 48 hours' advance notice of a meeting in the absence of a bona fide emergency," read the notice from Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office.

It was addressed to Evanston city attorney W. Grant Farrar.

On June 29, Evanston Mayor Steve Hagerty called what was said to be an emergency meeting and proposed a discussion to consider having the north suburb opt out of going along with the Cook County minimum wage increase and paid sick time ordinances that were to go into effect July 1.

The state's Open Meetings Act requires that the public be told at least two full days in advance about a public meeting.

In it's rebuke Monday, the letter from the attorney general's office indicated that city did not do that. Further, the letter states, Evanston leaders had ample time before the end of June to meet and deal with the issue of the county ordinances.

"The Cook County ordinances were passed in October 2016. The council clearly should have anticipated well before June 30, 2017 that it might wish to take action on the Cook County ordinances prior to their July 1, 2017, effective dates," according to the letter, which was signed by Neil P. Olson, deputy public access counselor for the assistant attorney general, public access bureau.

"The council has not demonstrated that the effective date of the ordinances was an unforeseen circumstance that needed to be addressed without the 48 hours advance notice for a meeting generally required by (Open Meetings Act)," the letter read.

Because the council did not take action at its June 30 emergency meeting, "no remedial action for this OMA (Open Meetings Act) violation is required," the letter read. It also does not require "the issuance of a binding opinion," and the issue is considered closed.

The meeting was called following decisions in Wilmette and Skokie on opting out of the minimum wage ordinance. Wilmette voted to opt out and Skokie announced it would consider doing the same in the days before Evanston's emergency meeting. Oak Park was scheduled to consider a similar measure later that day.

Many in the packed audience at Evanston's meeting expressed frustration with the emergency session, wondering why it was called if the city supported the ordinance and did not need to take action for it to take effect.

The response from the attorney general's office came after at least five letters of complaint from residents – including a complainant who also claimed to be a Northwestern University employee – were filed with the state agency.

The complaints lamented the meeting notification time and the declaration of it being an emergency, according to the letters, which the Evanston Review obtained.

"I am no expert on these things, but I would argue that the city has had ample time to hold meetings regarding this change ... the actions about to be taken in the 24 hours prior to enacting the first phase of the [minimum wage increase] ordinance seem more obstructionist than conscientious," one resident's complaint read.

Some 150 residents packed the Lorraine Morton Civic Center for the morning meeting June 30.

"Members of the public were made to feel that the [minimum wage increase] ordinance was under threat and turned out in force ... to ensure that the city didn't opt out," read another resident's complaint. "I believe every effort was made to make it difficult for the public to respond and I want to be sure that the Council never tries to do this again."

Shortly after city officials sent the June 29 meeting notice, newly elected City Clerk Devon Reid posted a statement on Facebook questioning whether the meeting was legal and an emergency.

But after the June 30 meeting occurred, Reid said it didn't violate the Open Meetings Act because it was not called to order and no roll call or votes were taken.

Responding to the letter from the attorney general's office, Evanston Mayor Steve Hagerty said Wednesday that he was "disappointed to learn the attorney general doesn't agree with our decision to hold an emergency meeting."

A "lot of good" came of the meeting, Hagerty said. "We had a lot of voices to be heard."

The mayor said many of those voices went to Skokie the next week to encourage leaders there not to opt out of the minimum wage ordinance. An attempt to pass an opt-out ordinance failed following a split vote on the issue, and Skokie is now going along with wage increase and paid sick time off rules.

Twitter @GenevieveBook

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