Judgment against Department of Agriculture for withholding factory farm records final

Staff Report

The Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDA) has elected not to appeal a recent court ruling finding that they violated the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by withholding documents from Industry, Ill., resident, Ramona Cook.

Oct. 6, Judge Patricia Walton of the 7th Judicial Circuit in McDonough County ruled in favor of Cook after she sued the IDA to get copies of construction plans for the proposed Shamrock Acres hog factory confinement to be located one-half mile west of her farm in Eldorado Township. The IDA recently withdrew a motion to stay the decision pending an appeal and subsequently chose not to file an appeal by the Nov. 13 deadline.

I had wanted to review the plans before the county’s public hearing on July 12. Unfortunately, the IDA, through their attorneys at the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, filed a number of motions that took the last few months to litigate. This made it impossible for me to review the documents until just recently. Now that I have reviewed them with an expert, we have found several problems that could have severe environmental impacts,” says Cook.

It is unconscionable and unjust that I had to personally endure months of litigation to gain access to information that was rightfully within the public’s interest to be disclosed,” says Cook. The Illinois FOIA states that all citizens have a right to gain access to documents in the possession of the government. The act itself states: “Such access is necessary to enable the people to fulfill their duties of discussing public issues fully and freely, making informed political judgments and monitoring government to ensure that it is being conducted in the public interest.”

Without having access to the plans, I was unable to evaluate whether or not the hog factory would be built in compliance with laws designed to protect me and my community from its pollution. Now there is little time to address the problems that have been identified.” Although the IDA sent a request for more information Nov. 7 to Shamrock Acres applicant, Larry Joe O’Hern, a final decision on the permit application could be issued in the coming days.

While time may be running out for Cook, this case should have implications across the State of Illinois as citizens have consistently been denied access to vital information on livestock factory proposals in their communities. “My hope is this will end the IDA’s practice of shielding such information from the public once and for all. I commend Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and the IDA for electing not to appeal the decision,” says Cook.

Cook is a member of the Rural Residents for Responsible Agriculture (RRRA) and was represented by attorney, David Albee of Galena, in her FOIA suit. Albee was previously successful in a similar suit involving construction plans for a mega-dairy in Jo Daviess County. Judge Walton granted Cook her attorney fees and court costs.

From the Nov. 23-29, 2011, issue

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