Written by Bob Rakow
Transparency was a central theme in Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury’s campaign, and while her supporters insist she’s already taken steps to honor that pledge, opponents contend the mayor has been less than forthcoming on issues of importance to the village.
The topic was broached at the Oct. 8 village board meeting when a proposal by Trustees Bob Streit and Carol Quinlan calling for trustees to have greater access to village records, including emails, was defeated.
The proposal lost 4-3 with Bury casting the deciding vote, but not before extensive debate by trustees.
Currently, only the mayor and Village Manager Larry Deetjan have access to the documents.
“You guys are going to tell me you’re going to restrict what can and can’t see,” Quinlan said. “I would think transparency would include providing general records to anyone.”
Village Attorney Paul O’Grady has ruled that the village is not required to share such emails with trustees.
“There’s no law that says trustees have access to the emails of the manager and mayor,” Village Clerk Jane Quinlan said.
Quinlan added that Deetjen and the mayor frequently are involved in negotiations and other sensitive matters and related emails cannot be made public.
“Under Illinois law, a number of these emails deal with personnel matters, litigation, labor relations, real estate and highly sensitive matters that are permitted to be kept confidential,” Deetjen said. “Those who wish to obtain unlimited data for reasons that are not objective and in the village’s best interests certainly should understand this balancing act.”
Trustees unanimously approved additions to the ethics ordinance at the Oct. 8 meeting. The ordinance prohibits village officials and employees from using their positions to influence board decisions that would result in financial gain.
The measure also prohibits elected officials from participating in discussions or voting on issues in which they, their spouses or domestic partners have received or expect to receive income or compensation for a period of one year.
Bury’s supporters believe the additions to the ethics ordinance are just one example of the mayor’s efforts to increase transparency.
“I think [transparency] has improved, but it’s such a big topic to tackle,” Trustee Alex Olejniczak said.
The veteran trustee pointed out that Bury has taken significant strides during her first six months in office to improve transparency, including establishing the legislative, license and ordinance committee during her first board meeting. Streit and Quinlan voted against the formation of the three-member committee.
The committee currently is discussing term limits for elected officials, an issue that is expected to come before the full board before the end of the year. The board will determine whether to place the item as a referendum on the March ballot.
The committee was formed in part to help Oak Lawn to reach a 100 percent transparency score on a checklist compiled by the Illinois Policy Institute. The checklist requires contact information for elected and administrative officials online, information about upcoming village meetings, copies of the minutes of meetings, information packets from previous meetings, publication of financial audits and budgets, salary and benefit information of public employees and access to public records through Illinois’ freedom of information law.
Orland Park was the first village to score 100 percent on under the institute’s guidelines.
Despite Bury’s early efforts to improve transparency, her political foes are quick to criticize her for failing to keep the board in the loop.
Streit and Quinlan, for example, believe they have a legal right to examine all the documents that Bury and Deetjen can access.
“It’s not up to the mayor, and it’s not up to the manager,” Quinlan said.
The mayor’s opponents offered several other examples of a lack of transparency on Bury’s part.
For example, they said, no resume or background information was provided when Pat O’Donnell was appointed village treasurer or when Bury made appointments to other committees.
Additionally, they said they did not receive an advanced copy of the pre-budget village finance presentation presented by O’Donnell, nor were they notified in advance of a proposals to outsource 911 dispatch services, transition senior services to the park district or reorganize the department of business operations.
“In my 22 years of service, I can’t remember another presentation, other than litigation matters, that did not include documentation prior to the board meeting,” Streit said of the pre-budget presentation.
Streit said Bury and her supporters did not want trustees to have time “to dispute the figures, ask questions or suggest proposals.” He said the board majority is more interested in getting a “quick vote” on Bury’s proposals.
Streit also criticized the administration for reaching an agreement with Advocate Christ Medical Center for permit fees and a voluntary payment without notifying trustees, which stifled debate over other alternatives, he said.
Olejniczak, a Bury supporter, said Streit has never before made such complaints or demanded greater access to village records.
“Did this go on before? The answer is ‘no,’” Olejniczak said. “It’s [done] to create issues.”
“You are now the conspiracy trustee,” Olejniczak told Streit at the Oct. 8 board meeting. “You have your own version on the truth.”
Trustee Terry Vorderer said opening up village records to trustees creates a security concern. He also questioned Quinlan and Streit’s motives.
“Is it a fishing expedition? It could be used for political purposes. Who knows,” Vorderer said.
Village Clerk Jane Quinlan, one of the village’s eight FOIA officers, said nothing is being hidden from trustees.
She added that trustees can submit FOIA requests. Requests that are denied can be appealed to the Attorney General’s office, she said. The village must offer a reason for the FOIA requests it denies, such as personal information related to employees or village officials.