How well does Forest Park comply with the Open Meetings Act and with the Freedom of Information Act?
These questions were the top audience concerns last week at the annual meeting of Citizens United in Forest Park, a grassroots watchdog group founded in 2003.
The meeting, held at the library, was attended by 23 people, including non-CUinFP members Mayor Anthony Calderone and Village Commissioner Marty Tellalian.
Running the discussion was guest speaker Terry Pastika, director of Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst. Pastika is a lawyer who helps people follow what local government is doing, clarify their issues with procedures and act, if they believe they find any missteps. The three actions she advocates are changing the form of government, throwing the current officials out of office, or suing.
Suing, Pastika said, is the last resort: It’s expensive and, by the time it’s done, the offending officials could already be out of office. Changing the form of government is also difficult: It requires a binding referendum and, often, is not the actual problem.
The real trouble, said Pastika, can be who’s running things – a political matter. And a political problem can only be solved, she told the audience, by tossing out an elected official and electing a more congenial candidate. It’s still tough, she said, but doable, and her agency can offer help to make it happen.
Forest Park has a commissioner form of government, which is found in municipalities with 200,000 or fewer residents. Forest Park’s population is about 16,000. This form can save money by eliminating an administrative layer. It gives commissioners legislative, executive and administrative control over specific departments.
But a serious drawback with it, according to Pastika, is the power a commissioner exercises over the hiring process.
Questions from the audience showed concern over getting information from the village, such as notices of meetings which they say aren’t posted on the Forest Park village Web site until the morning of the some meetings. The Open Meetings Act mandates such items be posted 48 hours in advance at the location the meeting will be held; this does not, apparently, also apply to Web site postings.
These situations, Pastika said, “obey the letter but not the spirit” of the Open Meetings Act. CUinFP founder Steve Backman got a laugh from the crowd when he responded, “They’re letter people in this town.”
In situations of limited or no access to information, Pastika said, citizens can call the state attorney general’s Public Access Counselor in order to hold officials’ feet to the fire.
Pastika invited Calderone to comment on the “form of government’ discussion. Calderone said “the only significant difference between commissioner and all other forms is that in the others, the mayor has veto power” something he himself does not have.
When asked about villages with “home rule,” Pastika pointed out this does not affect the form of government, but allows the town to tax, spend and regulate beyond the limits of state statute. She gave Chicago as an example: “They can tax everything!”
Among Forest Park citizens present was homeowner Susan Bruno, who said she showed up because she’s “disenchanted with local government – we’re told one thing and they do another.”
Since this was CuinFP’s annual meeting, it began with the election of new board members: Gwendolyn Crayton, William Gerst, Amanda O’Connor, Karen Rozmus and Jerry Webster.
Citizens United in Forest Park maintains a Web site that includes a page listing names of local and state officials, meeting dates and more. Members record village council and other board meetings (as provided for in the Open Meetings Act), hold candidate forums and work to increase voter registration.