ROCK FALLS – County officials plan to meet next week to figure out how to move forward with future legal representation for the Whiteside County Airport Board.
Dave Murray, the board’s attorney for the past half century, resigned suddenly Thursday following months of a regional watchdog group questioning whether the county illegally hired him as outside counsel.
His resignation is effective June 30.
John Kraft, founder of Edgar County Watchdogs Inc., a group that targets government entities that violate open meetings laws or improperly spend taxpayer dollars, says the county broke the law by hiring Murray because “the state’s attorney is the legal adviser for the county,” and “a county cannot hire a private attorney to advise the county board or any other county officers or boards,” citing the Illinois Supreme Court.
The county can hire an outside attorney when specialized representation is needed, like for union negotiations or other matters that require particular expertise, but that person must be approved by the state’s attorney and be appointed a special state’s attorney by the court.
The county argues that under the state’s County Airport Act, the airport board can hire a person or firm for professional services including legal representation.
Chairman David Koster said the board’s original book of minutes reinforces its ability to operate with outside counsel.
Murray’s longtime work for the board extends past legal representation as he also performs a variety of secretarial and financial housekeeping for the board, including drafting the budget, meeting minutes and agendas along with keeping track of hangar rent, board member mileage and expenses and the like.
He’s paid $175 an hour, totaling about $17,000 a year.
County Administrator Joel Horn said Friday that he, Murray and a couple others plan to meet behind closed doors next week to determine the next steps – whether to hire another attorney or have Whiteside County State’s Attorney Terry Costello take the reins.
On another note
The state attorney general recently found that the board violated the state Open Meetings Act when it met in closed session Aug. 18 to discuss a prospective agreement with airport manager Mike Dowell and his company, M&M Aviation Services.
Dowell said Thursday that he made an inquiry to the state office after he “had exhausted all other avenues.”
Illinois AG Lisa Madigan reviewed the matter at Dowell’s request, and issued the opinion Tuesday. In his request, Dowell accused the board of characterizing the agreement as a “lease” so that it could meet behind closed doors to discuss it.
According to the minutes from the meeting, the board voted to go into closed session “for the purpose of discussing the lease of the airport property leased by the ... airport manager.”
Because Dowell’s lease was expiring, the board “needed to negotiate the new price and the new terms,” it said in its response to the AG’s request for an explanation of its actions, written by attorney Timothy B. Zollinger.
“Unlike prior years, however, there were two possible leaseholders competing for the lease. Thus there were concerns for confidentiality between the two competing lessees. ... For example, one tenant could propose that the tenant’s own fuel for sale, and the other might propose to have the airport own the fuel, which could create a substantial difference in rent.”
After reviewing a recording of the closed session discussion and other materials provided by the airport board, however, the attorney general ruled that a violation had occurred.
The Open Meetings Act allows a public body to meet in closed session to discuss leasing or buying property for the use of the public body, but does not allow it to discuss selling or leasing its own property in private, the AG said.
The airport board also said it was meeting in closed session to discuss setting a price for the lease agreement, which is permitted, but then, in fact, did not actually discuss it, the AG noted.
“To remedy its violation of OMA, this office requests that the board disclose to Mr. Dowell and make publicly available the verbatim recording of the board’s Aug. 18, 2016, closed session discussion.”
Murray presented the board with options Thursday, either make the entire recording public or challenge the AG’s opinion and keep it sealed, which could prompt future litigation.
He said the board discussed Dowell’s performance during that closed session and was concerned the conversation might include defamatory remarks that could be problematic if put into public light.
Murray and Koster agreed to listen to the tape before making the decision to release it in whole, partially or not at all.
Sauk Valley Media filed a Freedom of Information Act request Wednesday seeking a copy of the recording.
In addition, when the board decided to hold a special meeting on Aug. 22, it failed to properly notify the public, Dowell said.
The board sent a notice to Dowell on Aug. 18, a Friday, and he posted it that afternoon on the airport terminal door, but in his request for review of that matter, Dowell said the notice was insufficient because it did not state the time of the meeting and was posted less than 48 hours, in business days, before the meeting began.
In its explanation, the board admitted omitting the time the meeting was to begin, calling it a scrivener’s error, but contended that the meeting was called for the purpose of a closed session and no action was taken.
The AG acknowledged that the omission was a violation, but noted it was done in error, and recommended that the board ensure that, in the future, its meetings notices are available for viewing 48 hours in advance, including during nonbusiness hours.