Officials from the office of Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul are investigating the village of Skokie for a third potential violation of a law requiring most government proceedings to take place in public view.
The most recent complaint alleges that the village board violated the Open Meetings Act in a Feb. 21 closed session meeting. The complaint was filed by Trustee James Johnson, who is the only Village Board member who is not a member of the politically dominant Caucus Party.
That law requires almost all government proceedings to take place in “open” session, accessible to the public. There are nine exceptions, one of which is the discussion of land acquisition.
In his response to the Attorney General, Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen, also a member of the Caucus Party, said the closed session cited in the complaint dealt with matters covered under the land acquisition exception. Johnson alleges that the board’s discussion ranged beyond the boundaries of the exception.
The complaint is the latest fissure between Johnson, who backed a trio of government-reform referenda opposed by the village and filed two ethics complaints against Skokie Caucus Party leaders, and the rest of the board.
The subject of that closed session was what eventually led to the village’s approval of a $4.5 million loan to E&M Strategic Development to open a Homewood Suites by Hilton Hotel and Conference Center on the 4900 block of Oakton Street.
Board members approved the loan April 3. Trustee James Johnson submitted the request for review April 6. In a letter to Public Access Counselor Leah Bartelt, Johnson said that while some of the closed session did cover possible land purchases, “the vast majority of the closed session was dedicated to a ‘potential preferred equity opportunity.’”
Johnson alleged in the letter that staff presented to the board on a recommendation for a $4.5 million loan or investment to support the opening of a Hilton Hotel in the village’s downtown.
“This presentation was followed by an extensive Board discussion about whether the Board should use the Village’s Economic Development Fund to authorize a $4.5 million loan and initiate a public-private partnership with the hotel developers,” Johnson wrote.
The Attorney General’s staff said they would proceed with an investigation in an April 13 letter to Mayor George Van Dusen.
In his response to the Attorney General’s office, Van Dusen said “it is abundantly clear that the village board did not violate any provision of the Open Meetings Act.” He went on to make the case that “there was a healthy, robust discussion concerning the pros and cons of this proposal.”
“At the Village Board meeting on April 3, 2023, Village Manager Lockerby presented the proposal for the village to become part owner in the hotel development,” Van Dusen wrote. “For approximately the next 42 minutes, the Board of Trustees discussed and debated the proposal. Additionally, numerous citizens got up and spoke about the issue.”
The loan was approved in a 6-1 vote, with Johnson the sole “no” vote.
The attorney general’s public access counselor has previously found that the village Ethics Commission violated the Open Meetings Act in its consideration of a complaint from Johnson regarding village attorneys’ roles in local politics.
That decision led to a re-hearing of Johnson’s complaint, which commissioners then dismissed.
It also recently issued a non-binding ruling that the board violated the act when trustees discussed the process of appointing village attorneys in a closed session, as opposed to a specific attorney’s job performance.
The latter ruling asks the board to vote to release tapes from the closed sessions in which those discussions occurred. Van Dusen told Johnson May 1 that he was still reviewing the matter but said the board would vote on whether to release tapes soon.
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May 15, 2023 at 05:23PM