Michael Towner, a candidate for trustee in Brookfield, officially has fired the first shot of the 2015 election campaign, charging that the PEP Party dominated village board violated the Open Meetings Act on Jan. 12, when it approved a list of bills that didn’t appear on that night’s village board meeting agenda.
Towner, a former PEP member who broke with the party in 2012, filed a request earlier this month for review by the Illinois Attorney General’s public access counselor. On Jan. 29, the attorney general’s office responded to the request, ordering Village President Kit Ketchmark to provide documents related to Towner’s complaint and provide a written response to Towner’s allegation.
“We’ve already put the information together for the attorney general, and our attorney will be contacting them,” said Ketchmark. “I read Mike’s complaint, and it looks entirely political.”
The issue arose at the village board’s Jan. 12 meeting, during what is typically a routine vote to pay the village’s bills. Trustee C.P. Hall, the village board’s finance chairman, called for votes on two different lists of bills, one from Dec. 22, 2014 and one from Jan. 12.
However, only the list of bills from Jan. 12 appeared on the meeting agenda under the heading “warrant.” The village’s attorney Richard Ramello appeared to notice the omission prior to the vote, prompting a brief off-mike conversation between him and Ketchmark. Trustees them voted to ratify the bills from Dec. 22 before moving on to the bills from Jan. 12.
During the public comment portion of the village board’s committee of the whole later that evening, Towner questioned the omission of the Dec. 22 bills from the agenda and suggested that the board had violated the Open Meetings Act by voting to ratify the warrant.
Ramello responded that while the date of the December bill list was missing, the word “warrant” appeared on the agenda, meeting the requirements the Open Meetings Act.
That answer didn’t satisfy Towner who went to the attorney general.
“The agenda, I think, was an oversight,” said Towner. “But when I pointed it out at the meeting, they tried to cover up their mistake.
“They easily could have tabled it and approved it at the next meeting. They just don’t want to admit mistakes.”
Ketchmark disputed that there was an issue at all. Last November, the village board passed a resolution canceling the board’s scheduled meeting on Dec. 22, 2014. Included in that resolution was a provision authorizing Hall, the finance chairman, “to approve any and all necessary warrants for expenditures for the remainder of the month of December 2014, which warrants were not previously approved and which warrants shall be presented for ratification at the next regularly scheduled meeting of the board of trustees on Jan. 12, 2015.”
As a result of that resolution, Hall had already authorized the bills prior to the Jan. 12 meeting. Ratifying them was more of a formality, said Ketchmark.
“It’s pretty obvious what [Towner’s] approach is on this,” Ketchmark said. “This isn’t where the board took action on something. The action was already taken.”
If the attorney general finds that the board did violate the Open Meetings Act, it could order the board to re-notice the item in a public meeting and vote again. There is no punitive discipline, such as fines, for such violations.
Towner’s complaint to the attorney general is the latest in a string of similar complaints that the PEP board habitually violates the Open Meetings Act. In letters to the editor in the past two years, Towner has complained that members of the village board have met illegally in private to discuss village business — meetings he claims to have been part of as a PEP Party official.
“How do you cut yourself out of the group?” Towner said. “There was kind of a pressure thing of being involved.”
After receiving training on the Open Meetings Act, Towner said he later learned the meetings were against the law.
Ketchmark brushed off those allegations, saying that board members did meet together at political gatherings of the PEP Party, but that village business wasn’t voted on or discussed.
“As a party, we can meet, and we do meet regularly,” Ketchmark said. “He was a part of that.”
Towner was a longtime PEP Party member and was elected twice for village trustee as a member of the party. Towner, however, split from PEP in 2012 after he was passed over as the party’s candidate for village president for 2013. He ran as an independent and lost to Ketchmark in that election.
“After eight years on the board, none of this becomes an issue until he wasn’t picked,” said Ketchmark.
Towner now heads a slate of three candidates under the United Residents Party banner. There are three full slates of candidates running for three open trustee seats in the April 7 election.