Local FOIA requests center on hot-button issues

Published: Friday, March 15, 2013 5:31 a.m.CDT • Updated: Friday, March 15, 2013 9:37 a.m.CDT
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(Photo Illustration by Rob Winner – rwinner@shawmedia.com)
In commemoration of Sunshine Week, a nationwide movement that aims to open government, the Daily Chronicle filed FOIA requests with local governments to see what sort of information residents are requesting.

DeKALB – Lynn Fazekas doesn’t like to use the word “transparency” when describing her blogging efforts.

She thinks the term is so overused it has no meaning.

“People who used the word transparency the most don’t have the kind of transparency record to match,” Fazekas said.

Author of the City Barbs blog and a write-in candidate for DeKalb’s city clerk, Fazekas estimated that she sends between six to 12 Freedom of Information Act requests a year to a variety of local governments.

Local governments in DeKalb County received at least 700 FOIA requests from residents from around the country in the six months between Oct. 4, 2012, and March 4.

In commemoration of Sunshine Week, a nationwide movement dedicated to open government, the Daily Chronicle filed FOIA requests with local governments to see how people used the common information tool.

The DeKalb County administration office received six requests during the period, half of which were from union officials seeking salary or health insurance information. DeKalb police received at least 500 requests for incident reports, while the Sycamore police received more than 170. Here’s a look at some of the other requests.

City of DeKalb

Of the 52 FOIA requests received by the city of DeKalb, Fazekas sent three of them within the six-month timeframe.

In March, Fazekas sent a FOIA request to the city for a copy of Carl Leoni’s contract with the city as their new housing coordinator. Fazekas said she was interested in the contract’s provisions given that a future City Council could choose to de-fund his bureau.

Fazekas also sent a FOIA request to the city for a copy of a letter from the Attorney General’s office about an alleged Open Meetings Act violation the city committed in late 2012. A resident asked state officials to review the City Council’s changes to its agenda and the format it uses online.

The public access counselor initially determined the city had violated OMA. However, City Attorney Dean Frieders said they had acted on inaccurate information. Frieders said he spoke with Sarah Pratt, the state’s public access counselor, who agreed.

“A letter of clarification is forthcoming, and it would indicate there was no violation,” Frieders said.

Most of the information requests the city clerks received were from people seeking details of certain properties in the city, including whether specific parcels have outstanding bills, violations or liens.

DeKalb and Sycamore schools

DeKalb School District 428 received two FOIA requests on the now-defunct land swap deal with ShoDeen Construction. In 2012, the school district considered trading Kiwanis Park for land the Geneva-based developer owned by Huntley Middle School.

Both requests sought information on the district’s land transactions since 2002.

Elizabeth Neurauter asked the Sycamore School District 427 for a copy of the state report on the district’s English Language Learners Program. She said she was one of the substitutes observed by state auditors, and she wanted to know how the program fared.

Mark Egan, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, requested cost, size and bidding information about all new schools constructed within both districts for a study he was conducting.

DeKalb and Sycamore Park Districts

At least eight of the FOIA requests the DeKalb Park District received concerned the district’s role in the Nature Trail clear-cutting.

In November, contractors hired by ComEd removed trees and vegetation underneath and around the power lines next to the Nature Trail – a 1.5-mile prairie path located between Sycamore Road and First Street.

The FOIA requests sought to examine what the park district’s agreement with ComEd is, and what kind of communication about the trail was exchanged.

Keith Nyquist and his wife, Pattie, filed half the requests. Nyquist, a candidate for the park board in April, said his December FOIA was filed when not a lot of information was known about the clear-cutting.

“We were just trying to get some sort of answer as to what was going on,” Nyquist said.

By contrast, the Sycamore Park District received no FOIA requests during this time period.

What is FOIA?

• Anybody can submit a Freedom of Information Act request to any unit of government, be it the local city council or school board to a state agency in Illinois. The public body then has five business days after receiving the information to respond to the request or to request more time to find the information.

• If someone making the request is unhappy with the government’s response, they can request the public access counselor in the state Attorney General’s office to intervene.

• Then, the public access counselor can issue an opinion in the matter. It ultimately could lead to court action.

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