Two Galesburg aldermen say the city violated a state act; mayor disagrees
GALESBURG — At the end of some of their meetings, Galesburg City Council will convene into a closed executive session to discuss sensitive matters like the acquisition of property or the compensation, discipline, performance or dismissal of specific city employees.
The meetings are ruled by the Illinois Open Meetings Act, which guarantees citizens have the right to attend all meetings “at which any business of a public body is discussed or acted upon,” except for when “public interest would be clearly endangered or the personal privacy or guaranteed rights of individuals would be clearly in danger of unwarranted invasion.”
Two Galesburg aldermen — Bradley Hix and Larry Cox — alleged in a news release Jan. 13 that city officials violated the state’s Open Meetings Act during the executive sessions on Dec. 5 and Dec. 19.
The aldermen’s news release says that the violations involved discussions of hiring for a new city position and salary increases. The release states that the aldermen have filed the alleged violations against City Manager Gerald Smith and Galesburg Mayor Peter Scwartzman with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office of Public Access Bureau.
Though the City of Galesburg’s legal team has not issued a formal statement on the alleged violations at this time, Schwartzman said the city’s legal team has indicated to him they have “no concerns whatsoever” about the complaints.
"I don't believe a violation has occurred," Paul Mangieri, one of Galesburg’s city attorneys, confirmed.
Schwartzman said he personally does not believe there is any merit to the claims and referenced a recent investigation into whether Hix was the author of a Twitter account that posted content the city deemed homophobic and transphobic.
“We have counselors who apparently have reason to deflect attention to themselves and it's unfortunate,” Schwartzman said.
A public policy vs. personnel matter
The aldermen’s news release states that Smith outlined the creation of an assistant city manager/director of public works position during the Dec. 5 executive session and the new position “has yet to be created and is a public policy decision rather than a personnel matter.”
The other violation allegedly occurred when Smith reviewed salary increases and discussed conducting a compensation survey during the Dec. 19 executive session.
“Attorneys from the Public Access Bureau are investigating the potential open meetings act violations,” the aldermen’s news release states. Hix said he filed the alleged Dec. 5 violation with the Illinois Attorney General’s office on Jan. 11, 2023, and filed the alleged Dec. 19 violation with the Illinois Attorney General’s office on Jan. 13.
Drew Hill, deputy press secretary for the office of Attorney General, confirmed in an Jan. 18 email to The Register-Mail that the Attorney General's office is reviewing the allegations.
"The Public Access Counselor will determine if further inquiry is warranted in any of these matters and, if so, forward the Requests for Review to the City Council for a response," Hill wrote.
Both Hix and Cox said they were present during the Dec. 5 and Dec. 19 executive sessions. Hix wrote in a text message to The Register-Mail that if “he had known at the time it was a subject we should not have discussed in closed session I would have objected.”
“As soon as I learned that it was (a potential violation of the Open Meetings Act) I notified the Illinois Attorney General’s Office,” Hix wrote.
“It didn't occur to me at the time, but over time as I've thought about it, I realized that there may have been some things that were said that were inappropriate, or discussed that were inappropriate," Cox said of the alleged violations.
WGIL Radio reported Tuesday that the city inadvertently live-streamed approximately the first 25 minutes of the Dec. 5 executive session on the internet.
John Pritchard, former mayor of Galesburg and the owner of WGIL, spoke about the Dec. 5 executive session during the city council’s Tuesday meeting, arguing that executive sessions are not for the purpose of discussing things that are “uncomfortable” to speak about in front of the public.
“After listening to the stream, it was absolutely apparent to me that there was no valid reason to discuss the topic that was discussed in that executive session," Pritchard said. "My position: how the hell did this happen?"
‘Using politics against the city’
Smith attended the Dec. 5 council meeting remotely.
“My comment is: I defer to the AG's office," Smith said when asked about the alleged violations.
Schwartzman said he finds the complaints to be “highly suspicious" since he did not receive any correspondence or suggestion of concern from the aldermen.
“I'm unnerved that we have council members now using politics against the city,” Schwartzman said. “Frankly, I think they are working against the city's interest in these types of allegations."
Schwartzman said that despite discussing personnel matters in a closed executive session on Dec. 5 and Dec. 19, Galesburg City Council cannot hire for a new position or increase city salaries without a public vote.
Schwartzman also said Tuesday he has not personally heard from the Illinois Attorney General’s office, but the City of Galesburg keeps recordings of all its executive sessions, so there will be no “he said, she said” in the event of an investigation.
In her 19 years working for the City of Galesburg, City Clerk Kelli Bennewitz said she can only recall one instance of someone filing an Open Meetings Act violation against the city. Bennewitz said the instance was approximately 15 years ago and involved the city’s Fire and Police Commission.