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Thursday, Jun 26, 2014 • Updated at 5:56 AM CST
In a highly unusual move, the leader of a Downstate watchdog group placed an entire park district board under a citizen’s arrest for failing to allow public comment and violating a state disclosure law.
Public boards are used to facing angry crowds, but most have never dealt with what happened at one recent meeting in central Illinois.
Around 30 people showed up at a Clark County Park District Board meeting in May, hoping to speak openly about recent park-related controversies. After most sat through a 2-1/2 hour closed session, the board returned to open session only to inform the crowd that they would not be allowed to speak to board members.
That’s when John Kraft, a member of a local watchdog group, sprang into action. Rising to his feet, Kraft informed the entire board that he was placing them under citizen’s arrest for violating the Illinois Open Meetings Act, specifically the provision that insures the public can address their elected representatives at an official meeting.
Kraft said “it was the way they said ‘no'” that led him to take the unusual police action, adding that the board again refused to entertain public comments even after he explained they were in violation of the law.
Kraft is one of the co-founders of a group called Illinois Leaks, which used to be called the Edgar County Watchdogs.
He also shot video of the arrest, posted on YouTube. Kraft says he attends several board meetings a week, and usually brings a camera along.
For “eight or nine months” Kraft says he’s been holding a printout of the citizen’s arrest statute in his wallet — just in case he had to invoke it against a public board that failed to allow public comment.
But Kraft said he wasn’t planning to pull out the citizen’s arrest statute at the park board hearing until it became clear the board was refusing to let people address them.
Board members took immediate notice.
“I was concerned,” board member Jeff Wallace told the Better Government Association. “I thought ‘Wow. Is somebody going to get confrontational here?’ I had no idea how a citizen’s arrest would even work.”
Board attorney Kate Yargus could be heard on You Tube video saying there would be no public comment that night, and told the board members they were “free to go,” even after Kraft’s citizen’s arrest announcement.
Yargus declined formal comment on the matter, citing a pending lawsuit filed by Kraft’s partner at Illinois Leaks, Kirk Allen. But in an emailed statement to NBC 5, she said, “There is clear precedent in Illinois for resolving these matters, and the board has followed it. Aside from that, the issue is moot.”
Clark County Sheriff Jerry Parsley personally responded to the scene that night, because he knew it was a heated situation. He told the BGA that Kraft handled the citizen’s arrest responsibly, and the board was definitely in violation of the Open Meetings Act by not allowing the public to speak.
“It’s not that they should have. They’re mandated to,” Parsley said. “The people need to have their voice. It’s not a dictatorship. It’s a democracy.”
Allen’s lawsuit calls for the board to create an Open Meetings Act policy, and pay Illinois Leaks’ court costs — a little more than $400.
That lawsuit could be settled soon. Last week, the board adopted an Open Meetings Act policy, allowing up to 30 minutes of public comment at future meetings, and a vote on court costs could come Thursday night.
Allen said the lawsuit was necessary, and both he and Kraft say since an Open Meetings Act violation is technically a misdemeanor, they’d welcome criminal charges against the board as well, although he admits it’s unlikely.
“Sooner or later, we’ve got to start enforcing our laws,” Allen said.
Wallace said he knew the board should have allowed public comment at the time, but didn’t speak up, because he knew he didn’t the votes to support it.
“You have 30 people, they just sat outside executive session for more than two hours, and you’re not gonna allow them to talk? What a slap in the face,” Wallace said.
Wallace said taxpayers don’t deserve to pay for the board’s mistakes.
“There’s no way in hell I’m gonna take taxpayer money and pay for this,” Wallace said. “Personally, I think our attorney should pay for this. She is legal counsel, and she should know you have to allow public comment.”
In lieu of that, Wallace said, he’d be willing to split those court costs seven ways with his fellow board members.
Other board members either could not be reached, or declined to comment on the record.
Clark County is in east-Central Illinois, and is on the Indiana border, across from Terre Haute, IN.
A citizen’s arrest may be rare, but Open Meetings Act violations are a widespread problem in Illinois. The Illinois attorney general’s office says it fielded nearly 400 complaints in 2013. Many of those ended in re-training of public officials in violation, a spokeswoman said.
In fact, the spokeswoman said that in the Clark County Park District Board’s case, all seven board members were up to date on required Open Meetings Act training provided through the attorney general’s office.