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Transit task force hit for banning public from ‘working group’ meetings

Updated: October 20, 2013 7:44AM

A gubernatorial task force charged with straightening out the Metra mess and other transit problems found itself facing its own brouhaha Wednesday over whether it should be holding closed-door meetings of its “working groups.’’

A lawmaker and a transit official complained about the closed sessions Wednesday, and at least two attorneys said the meetings — including one chaired by former U.S Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald — legally should have been open.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Pat Quinn insisted otherwise but by the end of the day promised that all future meetings of the “working groups” of the governor’s Northeastern Illinois Public Transit Task Force will be open to the public and the media.

The sessions of three to four task force members each, focused on one of four areas of transit reform, were merely “organizational” meetings of “working groups” and as such were not subject to the Open Meetings Act, said Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson. But, she added, “We’re happy to ensure that those organizational meetings are also open to the public in the future.’’

The decision came hours after state Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo) said he had complained to one task force co-chair about the closed sessions. The task force was formed in the tumult that followed the Metra board’s closed-door wranglings over an $871,000 buyout of its CEO.

Given the Metra fiasco, “How can you have any credibility if you are not open and transparent?’’ Franks said. “Now they are probably in CYA [cover your a--] mode. When they got called on it, they had to backtrack, but at least they backtracked.’’

Also adding pressure was Joseph Costello, executive director of the Regional Transportation Authority, one of four transit agencies in the task force’s crosshairs. Invited to speak Thursday to one working group, Costello wrote a letter Wednesday urging that “all meetings involving the Governor’s task force be open to the public,’’ including any working group meetings.

Attorney Esther Seitz of the Illinois Press Association said a public body can’t invent a name for a subcommittee and suddenly become exempt from the Open Meetings Act.

“Just because you call yourself a `working group’ doesn’t mean you can skirt the Open Meetings Act,’’ Seitz said Wednesday.

Both Seitz and John Myers, a Downstate attorney for various municipalities, said “working groups” would constitute an “advisory” or “subsidiary body” of the task force and thus be subject to open meetings.

Even a spokeswoman for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan seemed to agree.

“Generally speaking, it is usually our view that subcommittees of public bodies — whether they are called subcommittees or working group(s) — are subject to the requirements of the Open Meetings Act,’’ said Madigan spokeswoman Natalie Bauer. However, Bauer cautioned that the agency would need more facts to issue a formal opinion.

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