FOIA opinion in Village of McCook a victory for free press

From press release

SPRINGFIELD, Ill.—Openness and transparency in local government received a big boost through a just-released binding opinion issued by the Illinois Attorney general’s office. The binding opinion requires the Village of McCook to provide copies of a settlement agreement to the Chicago Sun-Times. The newspaper sued the village under FOIA last October for access to the document.

The Illinois Press Association (IPA) issued a statement praising Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) and her office for the binding opinion, citing it as a “win” for the public’s right to know.

The decision tested Illinois’ new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that went into effect in January 2010. In this case, the village declined to release public documents on the basis that they did not have a physical copy of a settlement agreement that had been negotiated on their behalf by the Illinois Municipal Risk Management Association.

“This case is a perfect example of why this new FOIA was put into effect,” said Dennis DeRossett, executive director of the IPA. “Many government bodies are very compliant with releasing public information while others still are not and, in fact, use a variety of tactics to shield documents like this one. We’re thrilled that the attorney general’s office interpreted the FOIA exactly the way it was written and intended to be used.”

Don Craven, attorney for the IPA, was equally thrilled with the response.

“This shows that it works,” Craven said of the FOIA. He noted that several elements of the act came into play—the new act prohibits sealed settlements and provides that public records held by third parties must be provided under the law.

“We have been fighting for access to settlement agreements, and the local governments and insurers have been fighting disclosure since the 1980s,” Craven said. “Assuming this opinion stands, this resolves these issues in the public’s favor.”

The IPA, The Rock River Times (TRRT) and TRRT Staff Writer Joe McGehee filed a lawsuit Nov. 3 against Rockford Public School District 205 and Superintendent Dr. LaVonne M. Sheffield stemming from the district’s refusal to follow the FOIA and release a June 19, 2010, letter written by former Auburn High School Principal Dr. Patrick Hardy. The district released the letter at 4:48 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 24 (the day before Thanksgiving).

A hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m., Friday, Jan. 28, in Room 410 of the Winnebago County Courthouse. The case is being heard by 17th Judicial Circuit Judge Eugene G. Doherty.

If the IPA and TRRT are victorious, District 205 would be responsible for not only covering the legal fees of the plaintiffs, but could also face fines of up to $5,000.

According to the complaint: “The School District willfully and intentionally failed to comply with the FOIA in relying on a series of baseless exemptions, one after another, in an effort to avoid compliance with the FOIA and eventually abandoning those exemptions only to cite further inapplicable exemptions.”

The complaint also asserts that “In alleging those baseless exemptions of the FOIA, the School District acted in bad faith.”

The IPA, with headquarters in Springfield, Ill., represents more than 400 daily and weekly newspaper members in Illinois.

From the Jan. 5-11, 2011 issue

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