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Cullerton bars reporters from meeting

Chicago Tribune

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, refused this morning to allow reporters into a meeting of the entire Senate to hear experts discuss budgets and the national economy.

"You know you're not invited," Cullerton said before entering the second floor hearing room.

When a Tribune reporter tried to walk into the hearing room after Cullerton, the Senate sergeant at arms stood in front of the door and denied entry.

Cullerton told reporters he was "very disappointed" in the Tribune report about the closed meeting, saying the gathering was a "joint caucus" of Democratic and Republican senators that is allowed to be closed under the Constitution. That is a point disputed by government transparency advocates.

"You're missing the whole point," Cullerton said.
"This is meant to be one where just the senators are there to get information, but where they can also feel they can ask questions and ...have a free exchange of ideas without having to be worried about what the press might report," Cullerton said.

Cullerton dismissed the idea that allowing the entire Senate to hear a briefing from the National Conference of State Legislatures on state budgets and the economy should be open. He said he wanted reporters to see the information but that it would be presented in a press conference afterward.

"I know you guys are trying to show that we're all bad down here and that (lawmakers are) secret and that we're trying to do things in a bad way," Cullerton said.

"Yeah, you're right. We've never had it before. I'm proud of it because we're trying to bring people together socially and in the working atmosphere," Cullerton said. "So I'm not trying to keep the media out of our business. You can ask anybody what they want to afterward, what they think, what the materials were."

Cullerton said there would be no vote on Senate business and that the full Senate meeting behind closed doors does not represent a Committee of the Whole, which is required to be open to the public.

"I'm sorry that it doesn't fit into your theme," Cullerton said.

Before he entered the room, Sen. Lou Viverito, D-Burbank, said, "If it were me, I'd let you right in there because I'd be anxious for you to hear the good things I've got to propose."

Posted by Ray Long at 6:00 a.m.

The Illinois Senate plans to meet behind closed doors this morning to hear a presentation by experts about state budgets and the national economy, a move that open government advocates called baffling.

The unusual secret gathering is being billed as a "joint caucus" of the majority Democrats and the minority Republicans, two groups that represent the entire 59 members of the Illinois Senate. The caucuses routinely meet separately to plot partisan strategy, and the public is not invited. But a joint meeting is very rare.

The spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said the event will be closed because the presentation to be given by the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures will not fall under the state Constitution's requirements to be open.

But David Morrison, a top official with the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said the move doesn't make sense.

"Setting aside the legal issues, I can't imagine what the NCSL is going to say that's so top secret that the general public will not be allowed to hear it," Morrison said.

The Constitution says, "Sessions of each house of the General Assembly and meetings of committees, joint committees and legislative commissions shall be open to the public.
Sessions and committee meetings of a house may be closed to the public if two-thirds of the members elected to that house determine that the public interest so requires; and meetings of joint committees and legislative commissions may be so closed if two-thirds of the members elected to each house so determine."

Cullerton's spokeswoman, Rikeesha Phelon, said in an email, "Since a caucus is neither a legislative session or committee meeting, the public meeting and notice requirements of the constitution do not apply."

Patty Schuh, the spokeswoman for Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, said the event was an initiative of Cullerton's majority Democrats and that "they want it closed." Schuh said she did not anticipate public business will be conducted.

Donald Craven, a longtime attorney for the Illinois Press Association who also has represented the Chicago Tribune on open government issues, disagreed with lawmakers' interpretation.

"A joint caucus is a meeting of the Senate as a whole, either as the Senate or as a committee of the whole," Craven said. "This is not a social gathering. This is designed to discuss public business."

The same conclusion was reached by Charles N. Wheeler III, who has followed Senate activities for four decades as a statehouse reporter and journalism professor at the University of Illinois Springfield.

"What prompts this idea for secrecy?" Wheeler asked, saying it sets a "bad precedent."

"This is not homeland security coming to brief the legislative leadership on plans to secure the capitol in the case of a terrorist attack," said Wheeler. He said he could not recall the two caucuses in the Senate ever meeting together behind closed doors for such a presentation.

State Senate meeting in secret today
February 17, 2010 7:58 AM | No Comments
The Illinois Senate plans to meet behind closed doors this morning to hear a presentation by experts about state budgets and the national economy, a move that open government advocates called baffling.
 
The unusual secret gathering is being billed as a "joint caucus" of the majority Democrats and the minority Republicans, two groups that represent the entire 59 members of the Illinois Senate. The caucuses routinely meet separately to plot partisan strategy, and the public is not invited. But a joint meeting is very rare.
 
The spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said the event will be closed because the presentation to be given by the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures will not fall under the state Constitution's requirements to be open.