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Tradition of private meetings ending

November 11, 2018

KANKAKEE — Usually, the Kankakee County Board majority meets privately after an election to choose the board chairman and vice chairman.

That tradition is coming to an end, officials said this week.

Under state law, the majority of a public body cannot meet privately to discuss official business.

After the election two years ago, Republican board members voted 11-9 in favor of Andy Wheeler as chairman in a private meeting. They unanimously backed Stephen Liehr as vice chairman. This information was revealed to the Daily Journal days after the meeting.

The majority treated the meeting as a party caucus, like other county boards around the state have done.

But the attorney general has rejected such arguments before, saying the meetings must be advertised.

In 2012, a reporter for Sterling’s Daily Gazette showed up at the meeting of the Whiteside County Board’s Democratic majority at a union hall to select a chairman. Members told the reporter he was not allowed in, with one threatening to “kick” the reporter’s “a” out of the union hall. The reporter left and filed a complaint with the attorney general.

In a 2013 opinion, the attorney general sided with the reporter, saying public bodies must give the public notice of meetings.

Chairman Wheeler said the board would hold no separate meeting of the majority this year. The selection will take place at a board meeting next month after members’ new terms begin.

“I’m well aware of the AG opinion, and we intend to abide,” Wheeler said in an email.

In Tuesday’s election, Republicans kept their majority on the county board.

Jeff Keast, chairman of the Kankakee County Republican Central Committee, said he has researched the issue and spoken with state officials.

“We will not be doing a Republican caucus like they’ve done in the past,” Keast said. “The only way I’d be comfortable is if small groups met without violating the Open Meetings Act. The law is the law. It’s important for elected officials to honor that commitment by following their oath of office.”

The county board had another violation of the open meetings law in July 2017. It held a closed meeting to discuss County Auditor Jake Lee, saying his dispute with Wheeler may end up in litigation.

The problem with the meeting was that only 10 of the 28 members attended. For a legal meeting to take place, a majority — or 15 members — were required to be present.

Afterward, the county was advised the lack of a majority violated state law. To help correct the problem, the state’s attorney’s office suggested the board place the entire minutes of the meeting online, which the board did.

There has been no litigation.

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