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Better Government Association sues Cook County Recorder of Deeds for refusing to accept Freedom of Information Act requests via e-mail

December 11, 2013

Online Staff Report

CHICAGO — The Cook County Recorder of Deeds, run by elected official Karen Yarbrough, has agreed to start accepting public record requests through e-mail in the wake of a lawsuit filed earlier this year by the Better Government Association (BGA).

This should make it easier for the public, moving forward, to obtain documents relating to the mission of the recorder’s office — the repository of property records in Cook County — and its taxpayer-funded management.

The BGA and FOX 32 were researching a possible news story in February when the BGA requested, via e-mail, documents from the recorder’s office. The request cited the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which guarantees public access to documents in the possession of local government.

However, Yarbrough’s office refused to turn over the records because the request was made through email. The agency sent a letter to the BGA saying it has a “policy of only accepting FOIA requests exclusively via mail or in person delivery.”

The recorder’s letter also stated: “FOIA requests submitted digitally are not accepted.”

In May, the BGA sued the recorder’s office, arguing the “Defendant’s policy of ‘not accepting’ FOIA requests submitted via e-mail violates the letter and the spirit of FOIA.”

The lawsuit also stated that state law “makes clear that Defendant is required to accept written requests submitted to Defendant ‘via personal delivery, mail, telefax, or other means available to the public body.’”

E-mail is a means of communication that is available to the Defendant,” the suit noted.

In November, the BGA and the recorder reached a settlement through which Yarbrough’s agency agreed to a number of changes.

According to the agreement: “In order to compromise on this disputed litigation, the Recorder agrees to accept all written FOIA requests received through all means available to the agency, including e-mail and facsimile. The Recorder shall revise its FOIA policy, its FOIA Directive, and any other published documents expounding its FOIA policy accordingly, and shall publish its revised policy on its website and any other locations where its current policy is published by Nov. 15, 2013. Such agreement should not be considered an admission of liability on the part of the Recorder.”

The BGA was represented pro bono by the law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP, which has generously represented the BGA on a number of pro-transparency legal matters in recent years.

We are honored to help support the Better Government Association in its push for greater transparency and accountability in local government,” said Kirkland attorney Daniel Lombard. “FOIA is a critically important tool for the public and press, and it’s worth protecting.”

BGA President and CEO Andy Shaw echoed that, stating: “FOIA is one of our only tools for shining a light on government and holding public officials accountable, and when it’s not being followed, or when public officials throw up roadblocks to slow the flow of public documents, they need to be challenged.

We’re enormously grateful for the help provided by Kirkland & Ellis,” Shaw added, “and we’re pleased that Recorder Yarbrough agreed to start following the rules.”

It should be noted the BGA has exposed other problems with Yarbrough over the years, including an instance when she was in the General Assembly and ran an insurance agency that profited from a development project that her husband, as then-mayor of Maywood, had voted on. The BGA and FOX 32 also reported last year that, before Yarbrough even took the helm of the recorder’s office, she likely violated an anti-patronage order by trying to halt hiring at the agency. FOX 32 aired a follow-up story on this subject Dec. 10.

In light of such problems — and the BGA’s focus on greater government efficiency — the nonpartisan nonprofit has proposed merging Yarbrough’s office with other county bureaucracies that deal mostly with record-keeping.

The BGA is a Chicago-based nonprofit, nonpartisan 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 public to achieve authentic and responsible reform.

Posted Dec. 11, 2013

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