Lawyer to city: Keep info secret

May 9, 2019

KANKAKEE — Kankakee’s city attorney this week warned aldermen against speaking publicly about what they discuss behind the City Council’s closed doors.

The attorney, Mike McGrath, even suggested that an official who reveals closed-session matters is in violation of the state’s open meetings law — an assertion that the attorney general’s office appears to contradict.

At Monday’s City Council meeting, McGrath read a statement in response to Alderman Dave Crawford’s recent interview with the Daily Journal about a closed session on union negotiations.

McGrath said Crawford, R-3, divulged items that were discussed in a closed session last month about the city’s contract with a union that represents code enforcement officers and other city employees.

In the interview, Crawford said he opposed an idea discussed in negotiations to remove a certification requirement for code officers.

In his speech, McGrath said city officials wanted transparency in government, but they could legally debate “very important” and “sensitive” topics behind closed doors under exceptions to the Open Meetings Act.

He said public statements about ongoing union negotiations could open the city to labor grievances, lower employee morale and affect future negotiations.

Such statements, he said, could lead “to the detriment of who we are all working for, the citizens who are the taxpayers of the city of Kankakee.”

The consequences for going public with closed-session information, McGrath said, can include a council resolution of censure against an alderman for violating the Open Meetings Act.

The open meetings law allows public bodies to discuss certain topics behind closed doors, but does not bar officials from revealing what was discussed. McGrath cited no law indicating such release of information violates the law.

A 1991 attorney general’s opinion also said state law gives public bodies no power to sanction its members for disclosing information from closed sessions.

“(T)he possibility of imposing sanctions against a member of a public body for disclosing what has occurred at a closed meeting would only serve as an obstacle to the effective enforcement of the (Open Meetings Act), and a shield behind which opponents of open government would hide,” stated the opinion by then-Attorney General Roland Burris.

After McGrath finished his statement to the council, no one commented.

In a later interview, Crawford said he has spoken with others on the council and they figure Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong “is trying to scare all the aldermen from speaking, no doubt.”

McGrath and Wells-Armstrong didn’t return messages for comment.

The mayor has said before she relies on advice from McGrath’s law firm when the city makes decisions on open government issues.

In the last year, the city, based on the advice, rejected Daily Journal requests for copies of official city communications with outside vendors. In both cases, after the newspaper filed complaints with the attorney general, the city backed down and provided the records in question.

In another instance, Kankakee denied the Daily Journal’s request for a copy of a federal grand jury subpoena in connection with an investigation into former city official Richard Simms. The Daily Journal sent a letter of protest in response. Shortly after, the city provided the subpoena.

McGrath’s firm, Odelson & Sterk, is based in suburban Evergreen Park.