Misdemeanor charges filed against five county board members
The Piatt County State’s Attorney’s office has filed misdemeanor charges against five of six county board members, alleging they violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act during an online meeting held May 13.
During the meeting, the Zoom conference was apparently disconnected when the board went into a closed session to discuss the salary of the Circuit Clerk position. Some members of the public said they were not reconnected when the board came back into open session to vote on the salary.
“There were several members of the public who contacted the state’s attorney’s office and reported that they had been either cut off from the conference call after waiting for the board to return from executive session, or been unable re-enter the meeting after the executive session,” said Piatt County Assistant State’s Attorney Elizabeth Dobson.
Although the Open Meetings Act has exemptions that allow boards to discuss some issues behind closed doors, all motions must be considered in open session.
In ordinary times, the public would be asked to leave the county board room as it entered closed session, then called back in upon its conclusion. But in the current era of online meetings, confusion over how to listen after the closed session helped lead to the complaints.
Dobson said the moving of the salary item from the regular agenda to after closed session also, in her opinion, helped lead to the potential violation.
“The fact that the agenda order was changed would not have been an issue in an in-person public meeting because people could have stayed or not waited for the meeting to resume. The fact that it was conducted virtually set up this problem,” she said.
Just prior to adjourning to closed session, County Board chairman Ray Spencer said, “If people want to hang on for that (action), we’ll be back later.” Apparently some public participants were reconnected automatically, while some were not.
A violation of the Open Meetings Act is a Class C criminal misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. The charges, filed on May 15, are against Spencer, Robert Murrell, Renee Fruendt, Dale Latz and Shannon Carroll. There are no charges against county board member Randy Shumard, who was not in attendance at the May 13 county board meeting.
No court dates have been set, as the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court is in the process of appointing a judge who can hear the case. Judges Jeremy J. Richey and Gary A. Webber have already recused themselves from presiding.