Plaintiff says Champaign meeting closure violated Open Meetings Act

By Jonathan Jacobson

A local law office filed a complaint on Nov. 22 against the city of Champaign for a violation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

The lawsuit, which was brought by the Robert Kirchner Law Office, named Champaign Mayor Jerry Schweighart and the city of Champaign as defendants after they closed a meeting to the public on the evening of Nov. 21.

Schweighart said the meeting was closed because the council generally prohibits the public from hearing about potential land acquisitions and litigation.

“You don’t want to give whoever you’re bargaining with the advantage,” Schweighart said.

Ruth Wyman, who is an attorney with Kirchner’s firm and is also listed as the plaintiff in the suit, said the closure occurred after the regular meeting had taken place and was not listed on the agenda.

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The decision to close the meeting was made by a voice vote, which City Attorney Fred Stavins said was done in accordance with the law.

“I’ve taken a voice vote for seven years,” Schweighart said.

But Wyman said she believes a roll-call vote is necessary in order to close a meeting.

“Failing to call a roll-call vote, that’s a violation of the Open Meetings Act,” she said. “It is also a violation of the Open Meetings Act to say that you’re going into closed session for the purpose of discussing litigation without saying whether it’s pending litigation.”

The lawsuit alleges that because the council failed to “publicly disclose the vote of each member, and to record the same as to whether the council should convene in a closed session,” they are in violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Steve Helle, a journalism professor who teaches a class about First Amendment law in the College of Communications, said, “if (the minutes) just say a vote was held, and there was a consensus, that’s not enough. They have to cite the specific exception.”

The suit seeks an injunction that would stop the city and Schweighart from additional violations of the Open Meetings Act; public disclosure of the session’s proceedings, along with the video of the meeting; a statement that all council action taken during the closed session be null and void; and require the city to cover the plaintiff’s court costs.

“I understand why I as the mayor was named,” Schweighart said, adding that he does not understand why the suit did not name Gina Jackson, the Democratic council member who filed the motion to close the meeting.

“Obviously, it smells of politics, and (they) didn’t file on the person who made the actual motion,” Schweighart said.

Both Wyman and Kirchner have supported Democratic causes in the past, and Wyman was previously a Democratic councilwoman on the Urbana City Council.

“This isn’t politically motivated,” Wyman said. “What is clear is that we want the city council to not break the law.”

Wyman said that she mentioned council members Tom Bruno and Deborah Feinen in the lawsuit because they are both attorneys and have been members of public bodies for many years.

“If you’ve been serving in government for more than a year, you have had experience to go into closed session,” Wyman said. “These are people who should know better.”

Schweighart said he believes a roll-call vote is not required to close a meeting and added that “we try to run as open a board as we can.”

But Wyman said she thinks that closing a meeting by voice vote is a clear violation of the law, and plans to set the council straight with this lawsuit.

“When the government decides that they don’t have to follow the laws, and that they don’t have to conduct the public’s business in public, I think we all lose,” Wyman said.