Monday, July 07, 2014
Park District Board Members Placed Under Citizen's Arrest After Refusing To Allow Public Comment
This case arises out of the home county where I grew up in Illinois. Citizen watchdogs placed the entire membership of the Clark County Park District under citizen's arrest after they refused to allow time before adjourning for public comment as is required under Illinois' Open Meetings Law. Violation of the law is a Class C misdemeanor offense. Approximately 30 people showed up for the board meeting, but board members went into executive session for nearly 2 1/2 hours. When they returned, the board adjourned the meeting without allowing time for public comment. John Kraft, a member of a local watchdog group then rose to his feet and announced that the entire board was being placed under citizens arrest for violating the law.
The board's attorney, Kate Yargus, instructed the board members to ignore Kraft and advised them that they were free to leave. That prompted a 911 call to the Clark Co. Sheriff's Department. Clark Co. Sheriff Jerry Parsley personally responded to the call, and to the surprise of the board members and their attorney, backed up Kraft and advised the board that he had followed the law correctly for affecting a citizen's arrest. "It's not that they should have. They're mandated to," Parsley said. "The people need to have their voice. It's not a dictatorship. It's a democracy." The board's attorney refused to comment to NBC's Channel 5 in Chicago, although the reporter was assured public comment would be allowed at the next board meeting. Kraft's group, Illinois Leaks, has filed a lawsuit against the board asking it to develop a formal Open Meetings Act policy and pay the group's costs.
One of the board members, Jeff Wallace, told NBC 5 that he thought the board's attorney, not the park district, should have to pay for the costs of the lawsuit. "You have 30 people, they just sat outside executive session for more than two hours, and you're not gonna allow them to talk? What a slap in the face," Wallace said. "There's no way in hell I'm gonna take taxpayer money and pay for this," Wallace said. "Personally, I think our attorney should pay for this. She is legal counsel, and she should know you have to allow public comment." Otherwise, Wallace said he thought the board members should split the costs between the seven board members. The Attorney General's Office told NBC 5 that its records showed that all of the board's members were up to date on the Open Meetings Act training provided by its office. Illinois Leaks reported that Yargus resigned as the board's attorney, effective at the end of June, citing personal reasons. The board members agreed to split the costs of the lawsuit filed against it by the citizens watchdog group.
Indiana's Open Meetings Law, unlike Illinois' law, does not have a blanket requirement that public agencies allow time for public comment during public meetings, unless time for public comment is expressly required by a statute requiring a public hearing on a particular item under consideration at a public meeting.
This incident reminded me of the old episode of the Andy Griffith Show when Gomer slapped Barney with a citizen's arrest for making a U-turn after he had just ticketed him for the same offense.