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Saline County Board meeting filled with accusations

  • Laborers 773 Representative James Shovlin, right, addresses the Saline County Board regarding a county clerk's office employee grievance Wednesday evening.

    Laborers 773 Representative James Shovlin, right, addresses the Saline County Board regarding a county clerk's office employee grievance Wednesday evening.
    Travis DeNeal photo

updated: 3/17/2017 10:47 AM

HARRISBURG -- A contentious county board meeting saw accusations and counter-accusations batted back and forth between county board members and one elected official over closed-session minutes and an unrelated grievance filed by that official's employee.

The special meeting was called to address an issue of executive minutes, along with an expectation of closed sessions to discuss an employee grievance and labor negotiations.

Board member Joe Jackson told board members that he feared Freedom of Information Act requests regarding minutes from previous executive sessions could lead to legal problems. An executive session is a meeting within a meeting of a public body whereby sensitive information, such as pending legal actions, disciplinary actions of employees, property acquisition and other matters may be discussed. The term is generally considered a euphemism for "closed session."

At issue, Jackson said, is 16 different closed sessions whereby the committee that approves closed-session minutes to be released to the public did not have said minutes.

"Sixteen of those have not been revised the way we've asked them to be. The 16, all they say is the person's name who made motion to go into executive session, the date, and then they came out of executive session," Jackson said. "There's no content to advise the public or anyone else who wants to know what went on in that executive session. We've asked our county clerk to change those and they've not been changed. I don't know what else to do."

He then called upon Saline County State's Attorney Mike Henshaw to advise the board what to do regarding the matter. Henshaw read from a 2005 Illinois Attorney General's opinion, which he then distilled into two main ideas: that a county clerk must keep minutes, and in some cases create them.

Creation of minutes is needed, Henshaw said, when an executive session is called. An audio or video recording must be kept, then maintained in a secure location, so that a verbatim account of that closed meeting can be made by a county clerk.

"Gentlemen, if this is not clarified, problems can arise because they have to be verbatim," he told the board.

County Clerk Kim Buchanan refuted the idea that she has not created suitable closed-session minutes from those recordings and submitted them to the board. She cited one instance where she was asked to leave executive session, on Jan. 10, 2016, as an instance where she wrongfully was made to leave. She said she is not responsible for minutes she did not take in that case. She said she has done what she was asked regarding other closed-session minutes.

"I've updated them and given them to the ordinance committee," Buchanan said. "I do not have to sign off on minutes I didn't take."

Then, about 15-20 minutes of back-and-forth arguing commenced, with some board members maintaining the requested minutes had not been given to the board while Buchanan continued to argue that she had.

Eventually, board Chairman Jay Williams asked if Buchanan would provide the minutes in question to him as board chairman by the board's regular meeting March 23.

"I will to the best of my ability," Buchanan said.

The board then went into a closed session to discuss a grievance filed by an employee. Members of the public who went outside the courtroom -- where the county board meetings are held -- were called back in a few minutes later.

Buchanan said she had been asked to leave because it was a grievance filed by one of her employees, but she would not, citing another Illinois Attorney General's opinion from 2004 that only in rare circumstances should a county clerk be made to leave executive session.

The opinion, written by then-Attorney General Jim Ryan, said that only in cases where a county clerk had a personal interest in what would be discussed during the meeting should the clerk be made to leave. It cited an instance when a clerk was involved adversarially in litigation affecting the county and the county was to discuss litigation strategy as being an appropriate reason.

"Only in extraordinary circumstances such as these, however, may the clerk properly be excluded from attendance at a closed meeting of the board, and a person other than the clerk or a deputy clerk be charged with keeping the records of the proceedings of the board and preparing the minutes thereof," the opinion concludes.

The reconvened board then asked the employee, Julie Dunn, if she minded discussion of her grievance in open session. Dunn, a 27-year county clerk's office employee, said she did not.

She said her grievance stemmed from an instance where on Feb. 24, she went to the county clerk's office at about 9:30 a.m., and learned from another employee that a deposit was about $1,300 short.

Dunn asked about searching office trash cans for possibly a check that might have been accidentally thrown away. She said when she learned that custodian Steve Clark had already taken the bags to the waste bin, she and Clark went to it and brought about half of the bags in to the elections office in the basement. The two of them went through the trash, but did not find any checks.

Dunn said when she went back to the county clerk's office to report nothing was found, Buchanan asked why she was not told about the search through the trash bags. Dunn then returned to the elections office, where Clark had brought the remaining trash bags. They searched through those, but did not find any checks. It was later determined to be an error whereby a deposit was counted twice; the error was reconciled.

However, Dunn said Buchanan made a comment or comments indicating Dunn might be involved with the money's disappearance. She said she was humiliated and reprimanded in public rather than private, and that she has been continually reprimanded in instances when she felt she was properly doing her job.

Buchanan said she never made such a statement.

Dunn then asked James Shovlin, the Laborer's Local 773 representative who was an observer of the county board meeting, to speak on her behalf.

Shovlin said the union was asking for a written apology from Buchanan to Dunn.

Buchanan said she would not write such an apology because she never accused Dunn.

"I did not make any accusations," Buchanan said. "I did apologize to them verbally if they felt I had misconstrued anything."

"Go to my mother's church and explain that to them," Dunn said.

Board member Stephen Karns made a motion to approach state offices who might have jurisdiction over county officeholders to discuss if there was a way to determine if a county office was being run properly. The motion passed, though board members David Phelps, Danny Gibbs and Chris Penrod voted "present." Gibbs had noted that because they were in a special meeting and such an action was not on the agenda, that the board should not be allowed to vote on the motion.

The board went into another closed session to discuss collective bargaining with employees represented by the Fraternal Order of Police.