A downside to Illinois' open meetings training

May 10, 2012

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(WBEZ/Sam Hudzik)
Homewood Village President Rich Hofeld holds up his training certificate.

Local officials across Illinois are getting schooled this year in transparency. By the end of this year, they're required to learn about the state's Open Meetings law, using a training on the internet. But there's a worry this noble goal could end up scaring away community volunteers.

You've probably heard of Illinois' open meetings law. It says that public bodies have to deliberate - about most things - in public. It's a simple rule, but the law can be complicated, according to state Rep. Kelly Burke, a freshman Democrat from Evergreen Park.

"You know, most problems that occur I think are inadvertent," Burke said. "And I think by having better education, better training will avoid some of those problems."

That's why Burke did what she did. Last year, Burke pushed through the legislature a requirement that all members of all public bodies take an online open meetings training.

That includes people serving on pension boards, village boards, library boards and advisory committees - like the Tree Committee of south suburban Homewood.

"I belong to the Homewood Tree Committee," Regina Zohfeld said, sitting in front of the computer in her living room. "We do a lot to make sure our town has lots of trees, because we are the 'home' in the 'wood.'"

Zohfeld, who works as a teachers aide, was told to take the Open Meetings Act training that's hosted by the Illinois Attorney General's website. So Zohfeld tried, pointing her browser to the website.

"So I click on that. And I'm supposed to be able to get in," she said, chuckling as she tapped on her mouse.

The first time she tried it, she could get in. But after 25 minutes or so, the website froze. So Zohfeld tried again. And again, as she demonstrated last week.

"And I'll tab it and put in my secret password," Zohfeld said in a jokingly hushed voice. "And [the screen] says, 'Your login attempt was not successful. Please try again.' So, let's try it with a capital T."

That didn't work either.

This is frustrating. Though perhaps not as frustrating as what happened to another Tree Committee member, Donna Anfield.

Anfield said she finished the training, after 7 or 8 hours - at least. Not all in one sitting, of course. And then, a small tragedy.

"Finally got to the end, and then you're supposed to print the certificate, and I couldn't do that. I couldn't, it would not print for me," Anfield said. "Now I don't know if it's my computer or just the website itself."

That's a problem, because state law says that the Village of Homewood has to keep those certificates on file. And that's for the hundred or so members of the village's 20 advisory panels. Most of those committees, like the Tree Committee, don't have the power to make policy or spend tax dollars.

"I can understand the need for an elected official to do it, so they become more aware of the Open Meeting Act," said Homewood Village President Rich Hofeld, with his own training certificate lying on the table in front of him. "I just don't see any necessity for a committee or a commission member to take it."

Some don't have computers in their homes, Hofeld said. Others aren't good with computers. He worries the online training requirement could scare some people from public service.

"We're very fortunate to have them as volunteers. God love them for it," he said. "It's getting more and more difficult - not only in the village of Homewood, but everywhere - to get people to volunteer, because people are too busy nowadays."

Both of our Homewood Tree Committee members said if they must be trained, they think there's a better option than the internet.

"I think someone coming out and talking to us would be a whole heck of a lot easier," Zohfeld said.

That in-person training option already exists for people on school boards. And bills are moving through the legislature to allow the same for drainage district commissioners and members of some downstate pension boards.

But Attorney General Lisa Madigan is pushing back against proposed alternatives to the online training.

“It’s critical that we provide a uniform consistent training on the Open Meetings Act for members of public bodies so that we can better ensure they understand the nuances and complexities involved in the act and conduct their work in the open," said Maura Possley, a spokesperson for Madigan.

As for the technical difficulties some users have experienced, “Contact our office, we can try to help," Possley said. "We want to be as helpful as possible."

Burke, the lawmaker who pushed for the online training requirement, said people without a computer at home can go to a public library. Besides, Burke said her bill was realistic.

It "contemplated that some people for whatever reason, aren't going to be able to complete the training, and that's why there's not a penalty attached to it," Burke said. "So I didn't think it needed to be tweaked."

That said, if Burke hears more complaints, she said she's open to giving members of local boards, commissions and, of course, Tree Committees, a non-web way to learn about transparency.