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Daily Journal
     June 16, 2020      #34-168 KDJ

Open government: When will government's public

Daily Journal staff report

The business of government has long been open to the public in places that are easily accessible to the community. But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed all that.

The rules of public meetings are laid out in the Open Meetings Act, which requires in-person attendance by members of a public body. But as the state of Illinois grappled with stopping the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. J.B. Pritzker penned an executive order that suspended those limitations.

His order also urged the postponement or cancellation of public business when possible and opened the door for virtual meetings when necessary business arose. So, for more than three months, many area boards have held their meetings virtually, most often via Zoom. Board members typically joined via video conference and members of the public were included in a variety of ways. Some allowed the public to attend virtually and be free to speak during designated times while some required residents to submit questions in advance. At the very least, the public was able to view the meetings online.

But now, as Illinois enters its third week of Phase 3 of Pritzker’s reopening plan and Phase 4 possibly coming by month’s end, the question turns to when will local governmental entities return to meeting in public in front of an audience of the residents they represent?

One local school board has already reopened its doors while other boards are making plans or taking a wait-and-see approach. Even when Illinois moves into Phase 4, limits on gathers — 50 people or less — will force most boards to make adjustments so that social distancing requirements can be maintained.

Village boards

“We are hoping to open meetings at the end of June when and if Illinois goes into Phase 4 where you can have gatherings of under 50,” Manteno Mayor Tim Nugent said. “Right now with the limitation of 10 or under, we are meeting as a board with limited staff in attendance and the public is available to attend by Zoom or watch on cable channel 4 or YouTube.”

In Bourbonnais, where trustees discussed the issue at Wednesday’s administrative committee meeting, Mayor Paul Schore said, “Right now, we are waiting to see what the governor is going to do.”

Schore said the village board’s July 6 meeting could be its first open to the public since March. It has been holding meetings via Zoom.

Bradley Mayor Pro Tem Mike Watson said plans to reopen village offices to the public are being put together, and they could be ready within two weeks. Watson is hoping board meetings could also be reopened perhaps by June 22, but more likely by the July 13 meeting.

“Basically we are waiting for the governor’s order,” he said. “We’re trying to accommodate as best we can. I’m hopeful we’ve made some headway [toward moving to Phase 4], but we want to hear from the governor.”

The village board meetings have been held with some trustees and department leaders in attendance, largely following the 6-foot separation recommendation. Personnel who are not at the meeting participate by phone. Media monitors the meeting outside the board room through a television feed.

Park districts

The Kankakee Valley Park District board is also offering the public limited access to its meeting.

“I’m always at the district [at Bird Park field house], and the doors are open for any public to come in,” KVPD Executive Director Dayna Heitz said. “... We have allowed [access] and have the opportunity for anyone who would like to, including commissioners, if they’d like to come in person. I make sure that it’s set up that there’s social distancing.”

The KVPD board has been meeting via Zoom for its commissioners to connect from their homes, and it will do so again at its June 22 meeting.

“Beyond that, I don’t believe in July we will offer Zoom unless I have someone who says they are uncomfortable doing [meeting in person], and then I will offer that as well,” Heitz said.

The Bourbonnais Township Park District is meeting in person and makes it available to the public online.

“We are meeting at the Exploration Station, but we are practicing social distancing,” BTPD Executive Director Hollice Clark said. “We also are allowing Zoom [access] as well, as we have only seven or eight people at the meeting.”

Clark said the board hopes the board meeting will be fully open when the state moves to Phase 4 of Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan.

School boards

The Kankakee School Board has already reopened its meetings for in-person public attendance. The June 8 meeting was held in the KHS auditorium with board members on stage wearing masks, and members of the public able to attend with masks and social distancing. The meeting was also live-streamed on the district’s Facebook page.

Superintendent Genevra Walters said board meetings will likely stay at the high school this summer because it allows for more space. The auditorium would normally hold up to 600 people, but Walters estimates that up to 200 could reasonably attend with social distancing once that many people are allowed by the state’s guidelines.

“I can’t imagine that that would be a problem because we usually don’t have that many people there, but then we would also provide an opportunity for people to watch it live,” she said.

Typically, meetings will have larger crowds around March when votes on contracts and personnel take place.

“Hopefully by then we will not be in the same situation we are in with the pandemic,” Walters said.

The Bourbonnais School Board will continue to host meetings via Zoom for the time being, Board President Rob Rodewald said. Members of the public can attend virtually and submit comments via Zoom during the meetings.

“While the board might be able to meet in the board room, with the limit of 10 people in the room at a time and social distancing, we don’t see how we could do [a regular meeting] right now,” he said.

The next board meeting scheduled for June 23 will be held via Zoom. If state guidelines shift in the next month, procedures may change for the July meeting, Rodewald said.

The Bradley School Board has been meeting in the Bradley West cafeteria. Some board members attend in person and others call in via Zoom.

Members of the public are able to attend with masks and social distancing. They can also email comments to Superintendent Scott Goselin ahead of time to be brought up during the meeting.

Goselin said the next board meeting, set for June 15, will follow this same format.

“Hopefully that will be the last one,” he said. “Hopefully by July we’ll be able to meet in person in a regular board meeting.”

Kankakee County Board

The municipality that is the furthest from reopening its meetings is the Kankakee County Board, due to its 28 members and being held in a small room on the fourth floor of the county building.

“Under IDPH guidelines, we have the 6-foot social distancing, and we can’t do that with our members in our meeting room as far as space,” said Board Chairman Andy Wheeler. “… In Phase 4 it probably won’t be allowed. In our case we would have to do it in a gymnasium. … I’d have to find a new place for [the meeting].”

The board has petitioned the governor through a resolution to move the county to Phase 4 of the reopening plan now. Wheeler said the county’s coronavirus data continues to improve.

“I just can’t see anytime soon when the public and the board will be in the same room,” he said. “I could see this going all the way through July and August. It could be longer, maybe until there’s a vaccine. I don’t know.”

The Daily Journal’s Jeff Bonty, Stephanie Markham and Lee Provost contributed to this story.

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