Angry crowds of citizens, like this one at a Cicero Town meeting in 2005, can play a role in keeping government meetings open and honest, says Andy Shaw | Sun-Times file
Let's hear it for a citizen's arrest of a county board
You’ve seen it before — riveting images of torch-and-pitchfork-wielding citizens so angry they’re not going to take it anymore.
It’s been a movie and TV staple for decades, from Frankenstein to The Simpsons.
And it came to mind recently when we heard a civic variation on the vigilante theme playing out at a public meeting in Clark County, 80 miles southeast of Champaign.
No torches or pitchforks — they’re obviously passé — but something equally outré: An entire public board placed under citizen’s arrest.
It really happened, as we recounted on an NBC 5 newscast last month, and local law enforcement actually sided with the guy who made the pinch.
The confrontation occurred in May, after 30 people showed up at a park district meeting, hoping to question board members about recent controversies.
They never got an opportunity to vent because the board spent 2 1/2 hours in closed session before adjourning without allowing public comment.
That’s not just an insult to the citizens who waited patiently for a chance to seek redress for their grievances — it’s against the law.
The Illinois Open Meetings Act, or OMA, specifically guarantees our right to speak at public meetings.
So the co-founder of a local watchdog group stood up, pulled a printout of the citizen’s arrest statute from his wallet, and — with a camera rolling — placed the entire board under citizen’s arrest.
Board members were stunned by the brazen act, and even more so when the sheriff arrived to sort out the mess and sided with the crowd — agreeing board members had violated the law by not allowing public comment.
We’re not recommending this hardball tactic in every situation; it could easily get out in hand in situations more heated than Clark County’s that night.
But candidly, it’s encouraging to see resolute citizen watchdogs who regularly monitor deliberations and votes at public meetings utilizing creative tools to win the right to participate.
Ironically, it turns out all seven Clark County park board members had taken required Open Meetings Act training through the Illinois Attorney General’s office, so they can’t say they didn’t know the drill.
Unfortunately, their violation is part of a widespread problem in Illinois — not an isolated incident — according to the AG’s office, which fielded nearly 400 OMA complaints last year, and settled many of them by retraining the offending officials.
As for the Clark County insurrection, it’s probably safe to infer that if 30 people showed up to praise the board that night, they would have been allowed to comment.
And we’re guessing those members stayed in their closed session longer than necessary, hoping the agitated residents would get tired and go home.
It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen recalcitrant boards try to run out the clock.
Clearly, Clark County residents didn’t like the job the board was doing, and board members flat-out didn’t want to hear it.
But that’s too bad, and no excuse for their illegal behavior. The OMA is not about their hurt feelings — it’s about our unequivocal access to them because they control our tax dollars and have to be held accountable.
By the way, the Clark County dust-up has a happy ending: The park board recently adopted a new policy guaranteeing up to 30 minutes of public comment at every meeting, with a max of five minutes per speaker
That’s fair, and it’s the right thing to do.
It shouldn’t take a modern-day version of an angry mob with torches and pitchforks storming Frankenstein’s castle to get there.
But the citizen’s arrest was sure fun to watch.