NORMAL — The Illinois Attorney General's Office determined that Normal violated the state Open Meetings Act when it denied now Town Councilwoman Karyn Smith from speaking during a 2019 public meeting.
Smith was running for council at the time. She requested in writing and in an in-person request to Mayor Chris Koos immediately before the Feb. 4, 2019 meeting to speak during the public comment portion. She requested the town save the façade of the Trail East building, which was to be demolished.
Both requests were denied. She was told she could not speak about the Trail East building because it wasn't on the agenda. She filed a complaint with the attorney general.
In a five-page letter to Smith and Normal Corporation Counsel Brian Day, Senior Assistant Attorney General Edie Steinberg wrote that the town's provision limiting public comment to items germane to the agenda is a violation of the state Open Meetings Act.
Smith told The Pantagraph on Thursday she is happy with the outcome, but "it's a moot issue at this point" because the town amended its public comment policy.
“Since the council changed the policy, we’ve only had one citizen who has requested the opportunity to speak before the council at the end of the meeting," she said, adding that she and other council members have made an effort to discuss agenda items in the public meeting space.
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"I hope that all citizens feel that the council, since I'm on it now, is accessible to them through emails and hopefully soon public forums when we will be out and about in the community," Smith said.
In his letter, Steinberg reiterated issues identified in another case against the town, in which mayoral candidate Marc Tiritilli was not allowed to speak during a Sept. 16, 2019, public meeting.
Steinberg wrote in both Smith and Tiritilli's cases the town violated the Open Meetings Act, but since the town amended its public comment in October 2020, the Attorney General's Office is not recommending any further action.
The amendment allows for a 30-minute period at the beginning of the meeting for the public to comment on items germane to the agenda, and a second 15-minute period to address "any matters germane to town issues."
Day disagreed with Steinberg in both cases.
"As I previously stated, the two recent nonbinding opinions are seriously flawed," he told The Pantagraph on Thursday. "They attempt to regulate public comment by pointing to a statute that has absolutely nothing to do with public comment."
Day said Steinberg did not explain how the statutes he referenced are related, and that the "public access counselor is substituting its policy preferences for the law."
Asked about the letters, Koos said both reference the same issue, which the town has resolved. He said he is open to the town considering moving the current 15-minute public comment policy in which people can speak about any issue germane to the town to the beginning of the meeting, an idea Tiritilli and other council members have advocated for.
Smith said she is also open to amending the public comment policy when the council is able to meet in person again.
The Attorney General's Office created the public access counselor to issue biding opinions and handle complaints.
There have been six requests for reviews pertaining to the Open Meetings Act against the town since 2015, said Day. Out of those six, the Attorney General's Office has issued four non-binding opinions and two — a 2018 and a 2020 request — are outstanding.
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Contact Sierra Henry at 309-820-3234. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_sierrahenry.