|WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 21, 2011|
The Illinois Freedom of Information Act guarantees public access to public records.
So—unless a narrow exception applies—anybody should be able to obtain copies of documents in the possession of local governmental agencies.
But four Maywood residents found that’s not always so simple.
Three of the four residents were candidates who took on Maywood’s power structure in the April 2011 election—and all four filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for documents with their municipal government in 2010 and 2011.
But, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in Cook County Circuit Court, village officials violated the law by, among other things, not turning over numerous records the residents were entitled to.
The suit, filed by Chicago-based Kirkland & Ellis LLP, which frequently represents the Better Government Association on pro bono matters, alleges that the village’s “actions in denying Plaintiffs’ FOIA requests were improper, willful, and politically motivated, and require the imposition of the maximum civil penalties under FOIA.”
For instance, one of the four residents, Cheryl A. Ealey, wrote the village in May 2010, asking for “All communication by board and staff to Economic Development Commission,” meaning she wanted copies of meeting agendas, minutes, memos and other relevant documents, according to the lawsuit.
Although such records are routinely released by public agencies, Maywood officials not only didn’t turn them over, they didn’t respond to the request, the suit alleges.
The law requires that FOIA documents be turned over within five business days, in most instances. Extensions are allowed if certain criteria are met.
In August 2010, Ealey requested, among other things, a copy of Maywood’s village budget, the suit indicated. The village was late in responding to the request, wrongly invoked an extension and provided only a “summary budget,” not a line-by-line breakdown, according to the suit.
A village employee later told Ealey that no such breakdown exists, which isn’t true, the complaint alleges.
The lawsuit mentions other examples as well, including an unsuccessful attempt to get copies of credit card statements for purchases made by former Village Manager Jason Ervin, now a Chicago alderman representing part of the West Side. Although village officials said in a response to an Ealey FOIA this year that Ervin did not “have an expense account nor did he have his own credit card,” that’s not true, according to the lawsuit.
The complaint, which seeks fines and attorney fees from the village, alleges that the FOIA process became politicized.
“In approximately November 2010, three of the Plaintiffs each announced their independent candidacies for the position of Trustee of the Village of Maywood, the election for which was held in April 2011,” the suit stated.
“Many of the FOIA requests that are the subject of Plaintiffs’ Complaint were made in approximately February or March of 2011 during the campaign for the Trustee’s election and sought information that Plaintiffs believed (and still believe) to show mismanagement, incompetence, and improprieties by Maywood’s elected officials and employees.”
The suit added: “On approximately February or March 2011, in response to complaints about FOIA responses, Village Clerk Gary Woll told Plaintiff Ealey in a face-to-face meeting that we ‘won’t give you information to use against us.’”
Ealey and her allies—including a resident who won a seat on the village board this past spring, Edwenna Perkins, another plaintiff in the lawsuit—attended “watchdog” training sessions and a clinic on FOIA provided by the BGA and Kirkland & Ellis earlier this year. At the events, the Maywood residents relayed their troubles to the BGA’s pro bono law team, which decided to take their case to the courts.
The BGA—a non-profit, non-partisan government watchdog based in Chicago—is not a direct party to the litigation, but promotes transparency by public agencies, and has benefitted numerous times from Kirkland & Ellis’s pro bono help.
“Kirkland has successfully represented the BGA in FOIA suits for several years, including suits seeking copies of then-Cook County Board President Todd Stroger’s cell phone records and the cost of Ald. Ed Burke’s security detail,” said Kirkland & Ellis attorney Matthew Topic. “In addition to our public ‘watchdog’ trainings for the BGA, we recently partnered with the BGA on a FOIA clinic to provide concerned citizens with individualized legal advice about their FOIA requests.”
“It was through one of our clinics that we learned about how poorly Maywood’s government had treated this group of citizens,” Topic added. “We are honored to represent this group as part of our commitment to pro bono work in Chicago.”
The other plaintiffs in the new suit are Joseph Ratley, a member of the Maywood Park District board who ran unsuccessfully for village trustee, and Dorothy Lane, a self-described community activist.
It’s worth noting that a measure recently signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn weakens the state’s open records law and, in effect, punishes residents who submit repeated FOIA requests.
“The BGA strongly opposed the law that Gov. Quinn signed in August because it discriminates against regular citizens who want basic government information, and it allows municipalities to single out those who make repeated FOIA requests and almost indefinitely drag out their inquiries,” said BGA President and CEO Andy Shaw.
“We applaud those who keep tabs on government, using FOIA and other means, and who don’t give up in the face of unreasonable, and even illegal, obstructionist tactics by public officials who are supposed to answer to the taxpayer.”
Separate from the lawsuit, the BGA recently embarked on an investigation of public agencies in Maywood, highlighting alleged corruption and mismanagement at the Maywood Housing Authority. Other BGA reports are in the works.
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The Better Government Association is a non-profit, non-partisan watchdog group that works for integrity, transparency and accountability in government by exposing corruption and inefficiency; identifying and advocating effective public policy; and engaging and mobilizing the electorate to achieve authentic and responsible reform.