Exclusive: Secret CHA vote broke law, experts say

The Chicago Housing Authority's abrupt move to close the LeClaire Courts development came after a secret vote by the agency's board, which government watchdog groups are calling a violation of the state's open meetings law.

CHA Commissioner Hallie Amey told the Daily News that the board discussed LeClaire in closed session and that the matter came to a vote.

Natalie Saffold, who heads the LeClaire Local Advisory Council says another commissioner gave her a similar account after last week's board meeting. 

Saffold says Commissioner Samuel Mendenhall  told her the board voted during a portion of the meeting that was closed to the public, and that he and two other commissioners had been in favor of keeping LeClaire open. The remaining five commissioners voted to close the complex, Saffold says.

The Illinois Open Meetings Act requires that final action by public bodies like the CHA board must be taken in public.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says the whole point of laws like the Open Meetings Act is to allow the public to participate in the decisions of government agencies. When they operate behind closed doors, says Dalglish, it violates the public’s trust.

“Not only is it unethical, it's illegal,” says Dalglish. “I would hope that the residents of that particular housing project howl, scream and kick in a really loud and obnoxious way.”

In addition to the vote, open government experts say the agency's decision to discuss the closure in a non-public session was inappropriate.

The law allows agencies to discuss a small array of sensitive topics, including real estate acquisitions and personnel matters, in executive session.

CHA spokesman Matt Aguilar says the board concluded the LeClaire issue fell under the Open Meeting Act’s real estate exception, which allows an organization to discuss “the purchase or lease of real property for the use of the public body” in closed session.

But Terry Pastika, executive director of the Citizens Advocacy Center, says the law requires discussions like the one over LeClaire to be held in public, because officials were talking about closing a development -- not buying or selling property.

“Under that rationale, anytime they talk about anything remotely related to housing, they could talk about it in closed session,” says Pastika. “If the board took a vote on a policy issue, took action on an item in closed session, that is a violation of the Open Meetings Act."

Dalglish agrees.

“Making a decision to shut down an entire neighborhood is not a real estate negotiation. This is not a real estate negotiation,” says Dalglish. “This is a public policy decision.”

Aguilar declined to answer questions about whether the agency had violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act and what future steps might be taken, including any amendments to the annual plan.

Mendenhall and Commissioner Carlos Ponce declined to comment for this article.

Chairperson Martin Nesbitt and commissioners Michael Ivers, Bridget O’Keefe and Mildred Harris did not return calls seeking comment. 

Violations of the Open Meetings Act are misdemeanor criminal offenses, punishable by up to 30 days in jail.

Public agencies that take action in violation of the law may also have those actions declared legally invalid. 

Last year, the Daily News revealed that the City Colleges trustees had failed to provide adequate public notice for a vote on a tuition hike. The Illinois Attorney General found the trustees had violated the law, and they had to take a second vote on the issue after providing public notice.

Staff Writer Megan Cottrell covers public housing for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 12, or megan [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.

Discuss

KELLIE O'CONNELL-MILLER, 05-01-2009

Below is the official response from the Chicago Housing Authority:

The Chicago Housing Authority disagrees with the statements and conclusions contained in today’s Chi-Town Daily News regarding the actions taken by the Board of Commissioners with respect to LeClaire Courts. The CHA believes that the vote that was taken in closed executive session was fully consistent with the Open Meetings Act and the facts and circumstances that have arisen with respect to the LeClaire Courts properties over the last seven months.

However, the CHA is also fully committed to being transparent in all of its actions, especially when those actions will have an impact on the lives of its residents. Accordingly, so that there is no ambiguity surrounding the Board’s actions, the CHA has determined that it will take no further action regarding the LeClaire Courts properties until such action is fully and completely discussed and voted on during the public portion of the next regularly scheduled Board Meeting on May 19, 2009.

Scott W. Ammarell
General Counsel
Chicago Housing Authority