CAC offers to assist Plainfield Township Park District Board improve transparency and accountability
Maryam Judar, CAC Executive Director offer the following public comment at last night's meeting:
Good evening Plainfield Township Park District Board Members. My name is Maryam Judar and I am the Executive Director and a community lawyer at Citizen Advocacy Center. CAC is a non-profit, non-partisan, community-based legal organization with a mission to build democracy in the 21st century. Among the many projects CAC is involved with, our community lawyers assist people in Illinois with navigating the local government decision making system so that they may affect policy decisions on issues that matter to them most. We also work with government bodies to develop policies and procedures that increase government accountability, transparency, and accessibility to the people they serve.
I am before you today to address the characterization of members of your community on the Plainfield Township Park District government website. Currently, a November 4, 2013 entry is posted referencing Requests for Reviews to the Public Access Counselor's office filed by members of the community. The description of the community members on the website who filed the reviews is a “small group of radicals” who use the PAC review process to “possibly harass the Plainfield Park District Board for its decisions.”
The entry goes on to state that “[i]t is our opinion at the Park District that these complaints were frivolous and a financial distraction from our mission.”
With respect to the public use of going to the PAC, it is important to understand that the PAC serves as an ombudsman between government and its citizens on open government matters. The Public Access Counselor’s office is dedicated to vetting FOIA and OMA issues when the answers are not obvious. Both government entities AND members of the public contact the PAC for answers about FOIA and OMA questions.
The Plainfield Township Park District website characterized the citizens’ use of going to the PAC as “frivolous” and
“potential harassment.” Such characterization of concerned citizens using a legal process to clarify questions about government functioning, especially when the FOIA and OMA legal analyses start with a presumption of disclosure and openness unless there is a valid exemption, is a misunderstanding of the purpose of the PAC and that the
Park District’s response to such inquiries is part of the cost of public business, as well as a misunderstanding of the role of a citizen in a democracy.
With respect to how concerned citizens are characterized on the website, using negative connotations appears to be intended to serve as a chilling effect on members of the public who disagree with government decisions
and how those opinions are expressed. Is it a policy of this Board to belittle the public so as to discourage public participation, the questioning of how government functions, and the use of a resource that is specifically in place to
answer questions of public concern? How does this meet the mission of the Park District?
If you do agree that it is not the policy of the Board to belittle public engagement, we request that such offensive language be removed from the website immediately so that the ostensible values of the public body with respect to citizen engagement – regardless of whether you agree with the viewpoints expressed – is reflected on the website.
If you do not agree, and find that such characterizations on the Park District website adequately reflect the values of the Park Board with respect to citizen engagement, may I suggest that the Citizen Advocacy Center might be of assistance to you in rethinking how to approach citizen participation. CAC has worked with public bodies to help them achieve a higher level of government transparency and accountability, and most recently with Wheaton Park District – at their request. We would be willing to help the Plainfield Township Park District assess their processes and procedures for engaging the public and in streamlining how it provides information to the public so as to lessen its cost relative to FOIA – free of charge to the park district.
Clearly there is a disconnect in how the Board is relating to the public it serves. I suggest that this disconnect does not originate with concerned citizens, but rather it originates in the dysfunctional manner in how the Board interacts with concerned citizens that is causing - as it states on the Park District’s website - “the financial expense to the taxpayers that could have been spent expanding programs for children, veterans, and seniors here in our community.”
For more about the November 13th meeting, check out the following articles:
Plainfield Patch: Peck Calls Citizens ‘Radicals;’ Resident Ejected from Park Board Meeting
The Herald News/Chicago Sun Times: Resident booted from Plainfield meeting
CAC is proud to partner with Medill Watchdog. Both organizations value training the next generation of community lawyers and investigative reporters and the collaborative process.
At CAC, we help concerned citizens address local public policy issues. Often times, the issues brought to our office by concerned citizens are cutting edge issues that have a regional or statewide impact. Part of our mission is making our government institutions more accountable, transparency, and accessible, combined with strengthening citizens' knowledge base, skills, and confidence to participate in the democratic process.
CAC's collaboration with Medill Watchdog provides an opportunity for student investigative journalists to make FOIA requests, interview members of the community on their issue, interview public officials, and more.
On May 6, 2013, the Citizen Advocacy Center sponsored a free event for the public on “The Legal Infrastructure for Civic Engagement”. The event was hosted by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) in their offices. Janice Thomson, public engagement consultant, organized and facilitated the event. It was recorded for later broadcast by CAN-TV. Matt Sweeney contributed notes to this report.
Public participation laws, such as the Open Meetings Act (OMA), are an important element of the civic infrastructure for civic engagement. In Illinois, as elsewhere, they do not match the expectations and capacities of modern citizens to influence public policy. They also do not reflect lessons learned on how to engage residents productively, including online. They mandate public hearings, open comment periods, and other passive, formulaic processes rated poorly by both residents and public servants, and often seem to have a negative impact on policymaking and trust in government.
Terry Pastika, executive director and community lawyer at the Citizen Advocacy Center introduced the topic and offered that in order to have a functioning democracy, a balance between the following two necessities are ideally achieved: (1) an engaged, informed, and active public, and (2) laws that encourage and protect engagement in policymaking. Civic engagement is a learned activity that must become habit forming, but current learning standards do not support the civic mission of our public schools. In addition, government officials often see public participation laws as a ceiling and not the foundation for public participation. Changing the landscape of civic engagement includes pursuing school-based civic education, as well as changing the culture of public officials that pass laws affecting civic participation in government decision making.
To stimulate the minds of the participants of the presentation on the subject of amending public participation laws, they were asked, “If you could make one change to public meetings in Illinois, what would it be?” The answers included: roundtable format, sufficient meeting information in advance, appropriate supporting materials (e.g., board packets), professional meeting facilitation for skills and neutrality, descriptive and better suited names of government meetings, different kinds of meetings, no more public hearings, a standard for minutes for better description, and flexibility in the OMA (intent vs. letter) such as to foster simultaneously an open, creative, and transparent environment.
Pete Peterson spoke from the perspective of public officials. He referred to a quiet revolution that is changing the relationship between people and government, driven by the ongoing fiscal crisis that is hitting local governments especially, as well as technology. In previous years when there were big revenues, public officials did not perceive the need to engage the public. With increasingly difficult land use and other decisions, some public officials are interested in engaging the public differently. This is a unique time in governance: public officials are looking for more engagement. They know that the traditional “public comment” period at public meetings does not suffice but are at a loss as to how to change the status quo.
Yet, one challenge according to Peterson is persuading public officials to understand that public comment is not public engagement. Referencing the study “Making Local Democracy Work,” by the National League of Cities, Mr. Peterson outlined what he calls the “trilemma” of public engagement: (1) public officials understand that they must engage, (2) but they don’t have the skills to engage, (3) and they don’t like the public that is currently engaged, who they view as the loudest and angriest constituents. He questioned the current design of the public engagement process that recent brain science research shows predisposes people to think poorly and inhibits creativity. The solution is not more public engagement, but more effective public engagement. Mr. Peterson also made a plea for the public to show more compassion for public officials because it is the process that is problematic, not the people. He emphasized how it is in the best interest of public officials to involve the public in more meaningful ways. For example, the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District in California led a 13-month public process to make a decision about the surplus of water in the wake of the closing of two pulp mills.
Maryam Judar, Community Lawyer at the Citizen Advocacy Center, outlined the barriers and limitations of the legal infrastructure for civic engagement in Illinois, including passive and reactionary laws, definitionally deficient laws, poor knowledge about civic participation and/or poor attitudes about civic participants by public officials, and legislative backlash in the wake of citizen success in their efforts. Some of the laws include passive, formulaic processes, including the Freedom of Information Act, the Open Meetings Act, and the laws respecting public hearings found in the Illinois Municipal Code. In addition, legislative definitions and frameworks limit public participation. For example, the definition of “public body,” describing which entities are subject to both the FOIA and the OMA, by its nature excludes non-profit organizations that government bodies increasingly rely upon to deliver traditional government services or to perform government functions. These statutes are also riddled with exceptions that belie their purpose to ensure that the citizenry may monitor government to ensure that it is being conducted in the public interest. Lack of civic knowledge and/or poor attitudes affect the ability of the citizenry to utilize mechanisms for direct democracy, such as for the electors at an Annual Township Mechanism
Matt Leighninger, the Executive Director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, an umbrella group that includes the major organizations in the field of deliberation and citizen involvement, outlined the core principles of good public engagement: (1) recruiting diverse voices proactively, (2) employing facilitated small group discussions to foster more deliberate, informed, and intimate environments, (3) providing citizens opportunities and support to take action, and (4) using online tools to complement (not to replace) face-to-face interactions.
Matt listed several challenges in achieving best practices. He cautioned that this is an emotional issue, and urged that the public take into account these reasons for which public officials may feel jaded about public engagement. Public participation laws do not adequately acknowledge the increasing use of online resources used by governments to promote public participation and by the public to civically engage. It is unclear how to apply laws to the many models of online participation. Given that online discussions have been shown to generate more acerbic comments than participants would say in face-to-face interactions, challenges in promoting civil discourse are paramount yet not regulable under the First Amendment. Matt pointed to the American Bar Association resolution to promote civil discourse, which encourages the legal community to promote civil discourse, as an example for a potential pathway to ameliorate the problem.
Towards promoting stronger and more relevant public participation laws, the Deliberative Democracy Consortium convened a working group on legal frameworks for public participation. The working group started with a preliminary question not asking what our laws should look like but rather what our public participation should look like. It drafted two documents: a model State Public Participation Act and a model Municipal Public Participation Ordinance. These were inspired by Alternative Dispute Resolution that puts forth principles to resolve legal disputes. By following this model, the working group was able to create a more permissive model of public participation. Finally, Matt urged that professionals in the field should concentrate on creating more engagement more broadly within our communities rather than more government structured and initiated engagement.
Before closing, the audience divided in groups to discuss how they might begin to craft meaningful public participation opportunities. The ideas included reducing the number of units of government to make monitoring of government bodies in the state more manageable, and building a stronger culture of engagement through targeted outreach and information dissemination about the processes for public participation and the areas of need for it, as well as partnering with organizations comprised of public officials to create workshops in which public officials may learn to value public engagement with an eye on the issues and not on personalities.
Note: Making Public Participation Legal is a helpful report that was produced following the event described above.
CAC Testimony in Opposition to Senate Bill 2 "The Illinois Business and Economic Advocacy and Development Act of 2013"
On behalf of the Citizen Advocacy Center, I thank you for the opportunity to present testimony at this hearing opposing Senate Bill 2 as amended, entitled “The Illinois Business and Economic Advocacy and Development Act of 2013.”
The Citizen Advocacy Center is an award winning, non-profit, non-partisan, community-based, legal organization. Its mission is to “Build Democracy for the 21st Century.” Since 1994, community lawyers have worked to build democracy by strengthening the citizenry’s capacities, resources, and institutions for self-governance. The Citizen Advocacy Center motivates individuals and community groups to seek systemic solutions to issues of public concern and works to improve democratic protocols in local and state government to ensure optimal public participation in the democratic process.
The Center’s community lawyers have worked with many community groups on their self-identified issues concerning economic development. Increasingly, government entities are relying on non-profit organizations to assist in accomplishing traditional government functions, such as economic development. The use of non-profits in pursuing the public purpose of economic development affects the ability of the public to impact government decision-making in the policy-making arena.
This bill is not “real reform” from the citizen engagement perspective.
Senate Bill 2 itself refers to the “public purpose of economic development in Illinois,” and yet the public will be kept in the dark about much of the activities of the Illinois Business and Economic Development Corporation created therein because the Corporation is not subject to Illinois Sunshine laws. Currently, non-profit organizations that perform traditional government functions are not covered by either the Illinois Freedom of Information Act or the Open Meetings Act. The Corporation is meant to assume part of the role that is currently held by the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, which is clearly a public body under Illinois Sunshine laws.
Further, there is internal inconsistency in the bill. The Illinois Economic Development Authority is described as a public instrumentality and
agency of the State exercising public and essential government functions, specifically by implementing economic development policy in the State. The Illinois Business and Economic Development Corporations shall be established for the purpose of receiving and disbursing funds from public or private sources to be used to further the overall economic development and well-being of the State. The Authority is to collaborate with the Corporation, but “the Corporation shall not be considered an agency, political subdivision, or instrumentality of the State,” and it “shall not be required to comply with any requirements that apply to a State agency or political subdivision.”
Yet, where the Corporation has deliberations that address utilization of public funding, the bill states that those meetings or portions of meetings will comply with the Open Meetings Act.
Outside of that inconsistency, there is no enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance with the Open Meetings Act. There is no authority governing the compliance of a non-profit economic development organization with the Open Meetings Act. Thus, the language in the bill to make transparent the Corporation’s discussions about the utilization of public funds is ultimately meaningless.
What is the benefit of this proposed model that the current model cannot? One answer might be that there is access to monies not available to a government entity. What percentage of assets obtained by a corollary 501(c)(3) derive from private sources and would not otherwise be available to a public body?
Another justification might be to protect confidentiality, a concern of private entities engaged in economic development. Yet the Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act protect confidentiality concerns through their enumerated exceptions. What concerns are not currently covered by those exceptions?
The reputation of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity will only be replaced by parallel concerns in the model proposed in S.B. 2. Instead, the current concerns with the DCEO should be attended to by strengthening the legislation creating the DCEO; for example, a strategic plan by the DCEO is currently permissive in the statute, and it needs to be amended to make it mandatory.
ILLINOIS ATTORNEY GENERAL ISSUES OPINION: CITY OF ELMHURST VIOLATED OPEN MEETINGS ACT AND IS DIRECTED TO IMMEDIATELY RELEASE VERBATIM RECORDING AND CLOSED SESSION MINUTES FOR TWO MEETINGS WHEREIN CITY COUNCIL
INAPPROPRIATELY DISCUSSED DEVELOPMENT PROJECT
Elmhurst City Council members went into executive session on November 19, 2012 to discuss “Selection of a Person to Fill a Public Office,” which in this case was related to selecting an interim mayor. The Illinois Open Meetings Act allows public bodies to meet in closed session for a limited number of issues. Specific segments of the law are weak in that it allows public bodies to go into closed session on this particular topic and for generally allowing public officials to take a consensus vote in any closed session as long as a ceremonial “final vote” is taken in open session.
That being said, public bodies are not required to go into executive session for any issue and the purpose of the Open Meetings Act is explicit: it declares the necessity for public bodies to conduct their business openly to the fullest extent possible. The purpose is not to cherry-pick exemptions to justify closed door discussions on topics that are, without question, issues of public concern.
The mere appearance of the item on the agenda for closed door discussion is unacceptable. This is especially true given the hyper-politicized environment that will have more than half the council members on the ballot this April for either mayor or alderman. The public deserves to observe, in its entirety, the process of selecting an interim mayor. This includes the discussion about the procedure for how the Council will act as well as the political maneuvering for majority support and the ceremonial speeches prior to the vote.
Just because a government entity can legally do something, should it and is legal compliance with a weak statute good enough to earn the ranking of an open and transparent government? City Council meetings should aspire to more than pro forma activities and our expectations of government should be higher.
Ms. Terry Pastika
Executive Director/ Community Lawyer
Citizen Advocacy Center
Suburban Corruption Forum: What Corruption Tax Are You Paying? CAC and Elmhurst College partner to bring author, professor, and former Chicago Alderman Dr. Dick Simpson from UIC who has written another study on the cost of corruption, this time focusing on the suburbs.
Green Grass and Graft: Corruption in the Suburbs will be held on Monday, October 1, at 7:00 p.m. in the Founders Lounge of the Frick Center. The event is free and open to the public.
After the forum, Simpson and Mixon will sign copies of their book Twenty-First Century Chicago (2011). The book takes a fresh look at metropolitan Chicago today, during a pivotal point in the region’s economic, social, political, and governmental history. Copies of the book will be available for purchase.
For more information about the forum, contact Constance Mixon at (630) 617-3569, email@example.com; or Terry Pastika at (630) 833-4080, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read complete information here.
Elmhurst City Council will vote soon to create a 4th Tax Increment Financing District
What May Have Started As A Good Idea Has Degenerated into a Justification for a
Boondoggle and has Become a Corrupt Political Process
What is a TIF district?
Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is a favorite government tool used to spur economic development in areas identified as legally blighted or underperforming. Elmhurst currently has three TIF districts and is considering a fourth to assist the north side of town.
How do TIF districts work?
City Hall provides developers and businesses with subsidies to lure them into town or to improve existing properties. At the most basic level, when a TIF district is created property tax revenues that are collected over a certain base amount are redirected to City Hall for its exclusive use within the TIF district for a period of 23 - 35 years rather than being distributed to numerous taxing bodies like the school district and park district. The diversion of property tax dollars away from the other taxing bodies and into the TIF district creates a TIF “piggy bank.”
Read the entire commentary.
Read the summary.
Lombard remap was self-serving
In response to “Lombard trustees keep districts in remap,” July 14, the facts lead to the conclusion that incumbency protection was the number one priority.
This is evident by Lombard’s adoption of a map in which a one-block-wide section of District 2 extends two blocks into an area surrounding District 6 in order to keep an incumbent’s home in District 2. This is further evident by the fact that 10 maps were dismissed for lack of incumbency protection.
We cannot know what kinds of decisions led to 19 potential maps in Lombard, because despite alternatives such as holding a workshop or a special village board meeting, Lombard trustees decided to keep the process closed by each trustee meeting separately with staff members in redrawing the boundaries, thereby deliberately thwarting of our state’s Open Meetings Act.
The fact that 19 different maps resulted from those private meetings attests to the possibilities that there are all kinds of decisions that could go into redistricting: some are mandatory such as those demanded by the Voting Rights Act, and others just make sense in a healthy democracy.
If the process of redistricting doesn’t include all the stakeholders, then the process becomes “malnourished” and the result is a less than healthy democracy. One consequence is fewer candidate choices at the ballot.
In contrast, if the decisions behind redistricting are made for reasons that protect the interests of the residents in the potential district rather than the interests of a the incumbent politicians, then the process will result in a healthier democracy where, for example, voters have meaningful choices of candidates on the ballot.
When politicians are in control of the process, they will act in self-serving ways. An alternative is a process that includes meaningful participation by other stakeholders.
Citizen Advocacy Center