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Cary Matters says village violated Ill. Open Meetings Act

Published: Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014 10:57 p.m. CDT

CARY – The group that has campaigned against the proposed Pedcor Investments apartment complex at First and Pearl streets in Cary is alleging an Open Meetings Act violation by the Cary Village Board.

Jim Cosler, who serves as chairman of the Cary Matters Political Action Committee, wrote to the attorney general’s office that his requests for a larger venue for the July 1 and July 15 board meetings were denied by the village.

“I allege that both of these meetings violated the [Open Meetings Act] as Village President Mark Kownick, Village Administrator Chris Clark, and several trustees were all informed of the need of a larger venue and disregarded the citizens in an attempt to silence critics,” Cosler wrote.

The attorney general’s office has determined that further inquiry is warranted.

At the July 15 meeting, the Village Board had a vote on whether to rescind an ordinance allowing Pedcor to build the 60-unit, low-rise apartment complex, which would offer affordable lower rents. The vote failed.

The Open Meetings Act requires all public meetings be held at specified times and places that are convenient and open to the public.

In the letter, Cosler wrote additional police were assigned to the meetings for crowd control, and said they directed people out of the adjacent hallway and stairwells. He added that Trustee Karen Lukasik, who was opposed to the project, asked for a larger venue, but her request was denied.

Cosler also pointed out that Clark acknowledged at the July 1 meeting that the July 15 meeting might need to be moved.

“The evidence clearly suggests a government that purposefully suppressed public comment in order to achieve an outcome contrary to the people’s will,” Cosler wrote.

In the village’s response, Clark stated the Village Board meeting room has a capacity of 124 people and that an adjacent room has a capacity of 32 people. There were still 20 people in the stairwell that leads down to the meeting room.

Some people were allowed to speak as many as three times at a July 1 meeting, Clark wrote to the attorney general’s office.

Clark wrote that Police Chief Pat Finlon had become concerned about the safety of people standing on steps of the stairwell. Those people were relocated to a large meeting room upstairs and provided an audio feed of the July 15 meeting.

In the village’s response, Clark said some trustees had private commitments July 15, and there was a concern about whether there would be a quorum. Ultimately, the meeting did have full attendance from all the board members.

Clark added that Lukasik had sent an email July 14 to ask the meeting be moved, but the agenda had been posted and it would not have been possible to do anything other than cancel the meeting.

“The July 15, 2014 meeting was open and convenient to people who attended,” Clark wrote. “With regard to everyone other than the approximately 15 people who were initially on the stairs and moved to the upstairs village meeting room, everyone who was present was allowed access to the board room.”

Clark said there were security concerns from members of Pedcor during the July 15 meeting. Pedcor representatives were escorted out of the building after the vote on the item.

In his complaint, Cosler said there have been closed-door meetings between Pedcor and two elected trustees and added Pedcor had the ability to roam the Village Hall, including private chambers.

“These may not be direct violations ... [but] they most definitely violate the intention of the law,” Cosler wrote.

Cosler also is complaining about multiple denials under the Freedom of Information Act.

Cosler had asked for email records for Kownick, Clark, Director of Community and Economic Development Director Chris Stilling, and Trustees Robert Bragg, Bruce Kaplan, Rick Dudek and David Chapman from May 1 through July 26.

The requests were denied on the basis that it would be overly burdensome to village staff.

Cosler said there has been similar treatment for other residents.

“What’s the big deal of sharing the emails, if there is nothing to hide,” Cosler said during a phone interview.

In a response written by Assistant Village Administrator Jacob Rife on the FOIA denial, the village said Cosler’s request would total 8,553 emails.

“Upon determining the significant number of emails that would need to be reviewed, the village asked Mr. Cosler to reduce his request,” Rife wrote. “Specifically, the village asked Mr. Cosler if he would include a subject matter within his request. If he would reduce his request to Pedcor, the number of emails would be substantially reduced.”

During an interview, Clark said FOIA requests from people who had narrowed requests to Pedcor-related emails have been fulfilled.

“Pedcor would be an enormous amount of documents, but virtually prepared because of other requests received,” Clark said.

Cosler said his group plans to pursue a civil lawsuit against the village, alleging an Open Meetings Act violation. The Cary Matters PAC has retained Woodstock attorney Jeremy Shaw.

Cosler said he hopes the attorney general’s office or a judge rules there was a violation and business from the two meetings would have to be redone, which would mean another vote to rescind would need to take place.

“It is my belief that the process for the whole Pedcor development has been flawed from the beginning,” Cosler wrote in an email to the Northwest Herald. “The zoning was definitely mishandled, the opposition during the village meetings was disregarded, and the methods used by our mayor and Village Administrator Clark were unethical.”

Cary Matters ran a letter-writing campaign to the Illinois Housing Development Authority in hopes the agency would deny Pedcor’s request for federal tax credits to make the apartment complex financially feasible.

Cosler estimated 300 to 400 letters in opposition to the project were sent to IHDA.

“The community has to be behind the project as part of the application with IHDA,” Cosler said. “Our position is [Pedcor] doesn’t have the support of the community. I think we’ve demonstrated that pretty well.”

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