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AG taking close look at meetings complaint

DIXON – Many people attending zoning hearings on a wind farm proposal say Lee County isn’t providing sufficient minutes on the proceedings.

One resident filed a complaint with the state attorney general, contending the county was violating the Open Meetings Act.

But county officials say they’re doing nothing wrong, merely following Robert’s Rules of Order, which are the traditional rules governing meetings.

This week, the attorney general decided to investigate the complaint, giving the county 7 working days to respond.

When the hearings for the wind farm started in July, the county got full transcripts from a court reporter who is working for the wind energy company, Ireland-based Mainstream Renewable Power.

However, the county decided against putting the hearing transcripts online until early September.

Chris Henkel, the county’s zoning administrator, let visitors to his office look at the transcripts, but then-State’s Attorney Henry Dixon denied a public records request from resident Frances Mitchell to see the transcripts. He referred Mitchell to the court reporter, who would have charged more than $1,000 for the documents.

Mitchell complained to the attorney general, who issued an opinion saying Dixon should have released the transcripts because they were in the county’s custody.

Since September, the county has received no transcripts. A Mainstream representative said the county didn’t want the transcripts anymore, but the county said it would have had to pay for them.

In place of the transcripts, the county resumed its usual practice of taking minutes of its Zoning Board of Appeals hearings, but sharply scaled back what they included. For years, the zoning board gave detailed minutes of testimony. With the new version, the minutes included little other than the names of those cross-examining witnesses and the exact minute they end their cross-examinations.

Henkel, the zoning official, said that’s all the county needs to provide.

Mitchell and others disagreed.

In her complaint, Mitchell, a former Lee County assistant state’s attorney, pointed to a provision in the Open Meetings Act requiring “a summary of discussion on all matters proposed, deliberated, or decided, and a record of all votes taken.”

The attorney general’s office said the county’s response should clarify whether board members questioned witnesses at the meetings. If so, the agency wants the county to explain the nature of the questioning and whether members discussed the questions or answers given by the witnesses.

When Whiteside County held hearings for its part of the wind farm, it made transcripts available as soon as they became available. In that case, the county required Mainstream to pay for a court reporter, so the county didn’t have to incur the costs of doing its own minutes.

Lee County apparently made no similar requirement of Mainstream, although the company hired a court reporter anyway.

Dixon, the former state’s attorney, left office Nov. 30. Anna Sacco-Miller, who beat Dixon in a landslide in the November election, couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.