GENEVA – The Geneva Public Library board has been going into closed session to review invoices for legal services, a violation of the Open Meetings Act, according to legal experts.
Board attorney Roger Ritzman would not comment, but board president Esther Steel said if the board is wrong to do that, the practice will stop.
“If what we have been doing is wrong, we will correct it,” Steel said. “We do not deliberately ever knowingly violate the Open Meetings Act. We are so careful about that. If we are truly in violation, it will never happen again.”
The Kane County Chronicle filed a request for review and enforcement with the Illinois Attorney General Public Access Counselor.
The library’s agenda for its Oct. 24 meeting lists a closed session for purchase or lease of real property for the use of the public body and “pending litigation/review of invoice for legal services.”
The Open Meetings Act requires public bodies to conduct their business in the open, allowing limited exemptions for closure, such as litigation, property acquisition, collective bargaining and personnel.
The exemption cited on the agenda for review of invoices for legal services does not appear in the law and is not allowed, said Esther Seitz, an attorney who represents Illinois media on open meetings and public records issues.
“There is no exemption that allows a public body to have a closed session to approve bills by an attorney or anybody else,” Seitz said.
Assistant Attorney General Rob Olmstead of the Public Access Bureau said an invoice for legal services can be a “gray area,” cautioning that his comments are a first impression and subject to further review.
“At first glance, I would tend to agree there is no specific exemption for that,” Olmstead said.
But Olmstead said if the review of a legal bill actually was a discussion of legal strategy, then it would be included in the pending litigation exception.
“Things that are going to affect litigation are fair game,” Olmstead said. “But if it’s just complaining the lawyer charged too much, I don’t think that would be fair game.”
According to 21 months of minutes from January 2012 to September 2013, the library board went into closed session for pending litigation and review of an invoice for legal services.
Minutes show lawyers’ invoices were paid after trustees returned to open session in the same meeting, but sometimes the bills were paid at a following meeting.