BLOOMINGTON — Three former officers of the McLean County Board of Health will not face criminal charges for their alleged violation of the Open Meetings Act, but Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office has offered to train board members on the law.
McLean County State's Attorney Jason Chambers said Tuesday he received the decision during a conversation several months ago with Madigan's staff.
The decision — delivered verbally after the expiration of the state's statute of limitations to prosecute — came more than a year after Chambers asked Madigan's office to review whether three health board officers violated the law when they routinely met and exchanged emails privately with former health department Administrator Walt Howe.
More than 4,000 pages of emails obtained by The Pantagraph through a Freedom of Information Act request showed Howe's practice of discussing board business with then-board members Becky Powell, Cory Tello and Jane Turley. Powell is no longer on the board;Turley and Tello still are.
Howe admitted the communications detailed in the emails between 2014 and 2016 were outside the bounds of the law but claimed the violations were unintentional.
In a statement Tuesday, attorney general spokeswoman Annie Thompson said "the chief deputy attorney general and criminal prosecutors in our office carefully reviewed all of the information and decided not to file charges based on a lack of sufficient evidence that would be needed at trial."
The state office offered to assist with training for current board members or other public bodies in the county "to make sure they understand their obligations under the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act," said Thompson.
In his 2016 letter to Madigan's office, Chambers said, "My first duty is to the people of the state of Illinois and when I see evidence of criminal misconduct I have an obligation to report it."
Chambers sought the attorney general's review because he also provides legal advice to the county Board of Health.
The conduct represented in the emails included discussions of board business and efforts by the group to circumvent the Open Meetings Act by renaming its executive committee the "Board of Health Officers" after being advised by Chambers' office that its gatherings were in violation of the law.
Board of Health spokeswoman Lisa Slater said, "While we haven't seen the final ruling, we appreciate any recommendations that come from Attorney General Madigan's office regarding this issue."
The delay that precluded the possible filing of class C misdemeanor charges against the former board officials is contrary to Madigan's initiatives to insure open government and review allegations that public business is being conducted in secret, said Renato Mariotti, a Democrat and one of eight candidates running to succeed Madigan when she retires from office later this year.
"It's always a concern when there's a violation of the Open Meetings Act. When a citizen contacts the attorney general, they should expect to receive a response in a timely manner," said Mariotti, the only candidate to respond to a Pantagraph request for comment on the McLean County situation.
The attorney general's office was unable to provide any information on how many other times the office has failed to provide a written response to a county prosecutor in the past five years. Lawyers are not required to track their contacts with state's attorneys and a review of existing records would be burdensome, Madigan's office said in a response to a FOIA request from The Pantagraph.
Since the emails were disclosed, the board elected Judy Buchanan as president. She pledged to move the board in a new, positive direction. Howe resigned in 2017, and Camille Rodriguez was recently named new administrator.