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Over the vociferous objection of City Clerk Devon Reid and many residents at the May 28 City Council meeting, aldermen approved the appointment of three additional City employees to handle Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Until then, the City Clerk was the sole FOIA officer, but he had designated the Deputy City Clerk to assist in filling the requests.
With the approval of the three new FOIA officers, the City’s FOIA officers are Mr. Reid, the Evanston Police Department Records Manager and a designee when necessary, an Assistant City Attorney in the Law Department and a Customer Service Representative in the Collector’s Office.
According to the City, all FOIA requests for Police Department records will be processed by the Police Department Records Manager. FOIA requests that involve Law Department records or a review of applicable exemptions will be processed by an Assistant City Attorney. All remaining requests for all other departments’ records will be processed by the City Clerk as the primary officer and the City’s Customer Service Representative in a secondary capacity, if necessary.
The issue was contentious, with nearly an hour of the Council meeting spent in discussion before the 5-3 vote.
Mayor Stephen Hagerty brought the proposal to the aldermen, saying that, since the number of FOIA requests had doubled over the past two years from about 700 per year to about 1,400 per year, it was necessary for the sake of good and transparent government to add more FOIA officers.
In a memo to City Council, Mayor Hagerty wrote, “Designating additional FOIA officers will give the City more capacity to respond in a timely manner and is consistent with the City’s past practice of having more than one FOIA officer.” The memo also said, “Having multiple FOIA Officers is consistent with many of our similar peer and surrounding communities,” such as Park Ridge, Arlington Heights, Naperville, Glenview, Highland Park and DeKalb.
At the City Council meeting, the Mayor said he believed the issue was a matter for the aldermen to debate and added that he believed it was “in the City’s best interest” for the Council to appoint additional FOIA officers. He said there should be an annual report how FOIA requests were being handled.
Many of the 22 speakers during public comment voiced support of Clerk Reid. Some said they voted for him and had confidence in him, and they feared that appointing additional FOIA officers would diminish the Clerk’s office and hamper transparency.
Former City Clerk Rodney Greene tried to draw a line between the Mayor’s proposal and the Clerk’s position. “It never was the Clerk’s job to redact or to have police records or records from other departments, because these departments had their own records.” He also said, “The Clerk does not have the authority to hold back FOIA records because he doesn’t like what’s being said.”
Mr. Greene said he supported the Mayor’s proposal but with the recommendation that the new FOIA officers “not be from the City Manager’s officer, not from the Mayor’s office and not from the Legal Department” but be designated by an independent person with knowledge of FOIA law.
Mr. Reid himself joined the debate, saying that his office had received very few admonitions from the Public Access Counselor of the Attorney General’s office. He also cited three occasions in which he had stepped in as an advocate for a person who had been denied and was able to fulfill the request. The denials had come, one each, from the Police Department, the Law Department and the Collector’s Office – where the new FOIA officers are employed.
The vote on the Mayor’s proposal, Mr. Reid said, would be “valid” only if the Mayor had produced “facts and figures and data” to show the Clerk’s office was not fulfilling requests in a timely manner. He also said that, since his office no longer handles passport applications and real estate transfer taxes, there is sufficient capacity to fulfill all FOIA requests.
Mayor Hagerty said he did not include information about open, pending and unfulfilled requests because he did not think that information was relevant to his proposal for additional FOIA officers.
Turning to the aldermen on the dais, Mr. Reid said they should be ashamed of themselves if they voted against the proposal because they would be voting against him.
Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said the vote was to codify the current practice. “Anybody who thinks that the nine people [aldermen] are not committed to transparency – that’s simply not true. … This does not take any of the responsibility of Clerk Reid. You’ll still be able to go into the Clerk’s office and [use the] Next Request system. You will still get help. The Clerk can be an advocate if the information is not forthcoming.”
Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said he had always supported Clerk Reid and would continue to do so but he supported the proposal for additional FOIA officers. “In my opinion, this does not take away any power from the Clerk, but it makes it clear who’s doing what.”
Aldermen Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said she understood that people were concerned and suggested that aldermen delay the vote until a judge had ruled in a lawsuit the Clerk filed earlier this month against the City, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz and Corporation Counsel Michelle Masoncup.
The lawsuit asks for a declaratory judgment – that is a determination by the Court – that only the Clerk’s office should handle FOIA requests.
Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, asked Ms. Masoncup the status of FOIA requests. Ms. Masoncup said 19 requests are “overdue” and 67 are in a “holding pattern” – that is pending.
Mr. Reid said the pending requests “are not a problem.” Many are pending because the requester did not narrow the request or know how to do that.
He said he left the 19 requests open because the City is not complying with the FOIA statute, and that is the reason I filed the lawsuit. … I will leave them open until I get them from the Corporation Counsel.”
The Clerk then asked that an alderman table the motion to add three new FOIA officers. No one did so.
Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, asked who would fulfill FOIA requests under the current system if the City Clerk were unable to do so. Mr. Reid said he had designated the Deputy City Clerk to fill the requests in that instance.
Even the roll-call for the vote proved acrimonious. Mayor Hagerty had to ask Mr. Reid three times to call the role, and after the voting began, Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, asked for additional information – “the information the Clerk says we don’t have about the backlog.” She was told the information was what Ms. Masoncup had provided. Ald. Rainey then said she was voting “No” because “I’m being deprived of information.”
Alds. Fleming and Rue Simmons also voted “no.” Alderman Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward, was absent.