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Kaplan v. Greater Niles Twp. Pub. Corp.

NOVEMBER 24, 1971.




APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. BEN SCHWARTZ, Judge, presiding.

MR. PRESIDING JUSTICE ENGLISH DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT: Plaintiff brought an action to recover damages from defendants for alleged defamatory and libelous statements written by defendant Roland R. Moore, Jr., and published by defendant The Greater Niles Township Publishing Corporation. Defendants' motion for judgment on the pleading was granted, and plaintiff has appealed.

All facts before us must be taken from the pleadings. For four years, commencing in April, 1965, plaintiff was a member of the Board of Trustees of the Village of Skokie. Defendant Publishing Corporation is the publisher of "The News," a suburban weekly newspaper of general circulation in Skokie, Niles, Morton Grove, Lincolnwood and Golf. Defendant Moore is the President of the Publishing Corporation and the Editor-Publisher of "The News."

When plaintiff took office as a Trustee in 1965, a Village of Skokie ordinance, adopted in 1961, fixed the salaries of Village Trustees at $25 per meeting attended, not to exceed more than one meeting per week. By reason of Article 9, Section 11 of the Illinois Constitution of 1870, as implemented by Ill. Rev. Stat. 1963, ch. 24, par. 3-13-1, the rate of compensation for trustees could not be increased or diminished so as to take effect during the term for which elected. In August of 1965, the statute (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1965, ch. 24, par. 3-13-7) was amended to permit a village with a population of 60,000 or more to adopt an appropriate ordinance to fix the compensation of its trustees at not to exceed $35 per trustee for attendance at one meeting a week. In December of 1966, the Skokie Board unanimously fixed the rate of compensation at $35 per meeting, effective April 15, 1969, but this rate was not applicable to plaintiff.

In 1967, Section 3-13-7 of the statute was again amended, permitting compensation for one weekly meeting in an amount not to exceed $75 plus $25 per month expenses, though again this change was not applicable to plaintiff. On March 11, 1968, plaintiff proposed and the Board of Trustees adopted a resolution directing Skokie's Corporation Counsel to draft an ordinance raising the regular meeting stipend of trustees to the maximum figure allowed by this amended enabling legislation, the ordinance to become effective April 15, 1969. In proposing the ordinance, plaintiff pointed out that it would not apply to the current terms of the then members of the Board. On March 25, 1968, a first reading of the proposed ordinance was had.

On March 28, Moore wrote an editorial which was printed on the first page of The News. Entitled, "Greedy Trustees," it stated in part:

"Skokie trustees are on the verge of voting themselves a 300 per cent increase in salary, plus a never-before-heard-of expense account.

* * *

Next Monday the trustees are expected to approve an ordinance increasing their salaries to $75 per meeting, plus a $25 monthly expensive account."

On April 1, at the regular weekly meeting of the Board of Trustees, plaintiff responded to a question relating to the editorial and the proposed ordinance by saying (as recorded verbatim in the minutes of the Board):

"I think your point is well taken, and think this editorial is misleading, is unfair, and does not tell the truth. It leaves the impression that this Board in passing this ordinance is increasing its own salary.

Now whether or not elected officials should or should not be paid I suppose is a matter of philosophy. I personally think it demeans a community and it demeans the office to ask dedicated men who are serving, and this doesn't relate to myself at all, to ask dedicated men who are willing to give the public their time and effort. I have done it on the School Board, I have done it for the Village, and the salary I get here is not a factor. It demeans the community to ask them * * * it demeans the office. The editor of this paper who wrote this article doesn't give free advertising. The average member of this Board spends twenty hours a week, and speaking for myself I can use that twenty hours in my law practice, I can use that twenty hours with my family. I need this responsibility like a hole in the head except for my duty as a citizen, and if the average member of the public has that little credence and that little faith in their public officials, an honest Board. We didn't come into office, no member of this Board came into office for low pay to take money on the side or hold their hands out. This is true of every public official in our professional philosophy. What this Board does is besides the point. But if you want honest government, if you want dedicated government, doggone it, be prepared to pay for it, and don't give me this business of a dollar a year. That's hypocrisy." (Emphasis supplied.)

Mrs. Jean Doney, a part-time reporter and columnist for defendants, was present at the meeting when the above remarks were made. On April 4, 1968, The News carried another front page editorial by Moore which contained the alleged libelous language and reads in its entirety as follows:

"Our ...

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