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Change in public records requests stirs controversy

Village Clerk cries foul over being cut out of the loop on FOIAs

January 8th, 2019 1:44 PM

Updated: Jan. 9th, 2019 12:00 AM

By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

If you want a police report about a robbery on your block or the permit history of a building in the village or practically any government document available to the public, you're going to first file a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

But the way those requests are processed at Oak Park Village Hall was quietly changed a few days before the Christmas break, prompting a letter-writing campaign by the organization Oak Park Call to Action, which maintains an active following on Facebook.

Representatives of the village government maintain that the change largely aims to make more efficient the method for managing FOIAs in the village and better secure the privacy of those who submit them.

But Village Clerk Vicki Scaman, whose office formerly served as the primary FOIA officer, tells a different story.

Under the old system, most FOIAs began and ended with the clerk's office: FOIAs were largely submitted through a form on the village's website; the clerk's office received the request and directed it to the proper department; the request was either filled or rejected; and the response was sent back to the clerk's office to disburse to the requestor. FOIA requests were frequently routed to the village's law department for review under the old system.

The system put in place late last year has requests entered directly into a computer system called Laserfiche and directed to the Village Attorney's Office for review.

While the change has been positioned as merely a technical change in the village's workflow, Scaman said cutting her office out of the process will mean more rejected FOIA requests.

She tells Wednesday Journal that dozens of times a year she advocates for the release of documents in cases where FOIA requests have already been denied. That independent oversight will be lost under the new system, she said. "It happens plenty," she said. "About 30 to 50 times a year I have to have that conversation (with department heads about rejected FOIAs)."

FOIA requests are rejected for a variety of reasons; the Oak Park Police Department, for example, rejects them, when the documents in question are part of an active investigation and the information is considered sensitive.

But some requests are rejected inappropriately.

Earlier this year, the Illinois Attorney General's Office overturned a rejected FOIA by Oak Parker Michael O'Malley, who requested traffic numbers on Washington and Jackson boulevards and Madison Street from a study by a village contractor related to a plan for reducing the number of lanes along the commercial corridor.

The village claimed that the study was exempt because it was in "preliminary draft form" but Public Access Counselor Sarah L. Pratt, in the Attorney General's Office, saw things differently, ordering the village to release the traffic information.

That's just one example of the village's effort to withhold information, according to Scaman.

Village Manager Cara Pavlicek said the FOIA change, which was not discussed publicly at length prior to the change, was prompted by a staff departure in the clerk's office in 2017. The Oak Park Board of Trustees voted to not rehire for that position and instead moved toward implementing the new technology based approach, Pavlicek said.

The board adopted the 2018 budget in 2017, and village staff began work on implementing the new system. Pavlicek said the FOIA change happened days before Christmas as a soft rollout when the village receives fewer FOIA requests.

Nowhere in the village code is it specified that the village clerk is designated as the primary FOIA officer, she said, adding that the village attorney has always played a role in reviewing FOIAs.

Trustees James Taglia and Deno Andrews have requested that the topic be discussed at a future board meeting to get more information about the new approach.

Andrews tells Wednesday Journal that he still has questions about the new system but added that "if the village clerk is cut out of the process, then that is something that we need to correct."

He said the technology based approach is necessary, though, to modernize the village's systems.

FOIA requests have increased dramatically over the last few years, and the change aims, in part, to help manage the increased number of requests. Scaman said in an email that the village received 648 FOIAs in 2016, 904 in 2017 and 1,335 in 2018. She said those numbers have gone up in part because she's done a better job at keeping track of them.

Several trustees, as well as Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, already appear to be in support of the new approach.

Abu-Taleb said in an interview that the new system is more efficient and better protects the privacy of those who have filed FOIA requests.

He said directing FOIAs to the law department makes sense because it means fewer village employees are handling the requests. "Having a professional reviewing the requests with a legal mindset is the right choice," he said.

Abu-Taleb said those opposing the new system are spreading misinformation about the new system and "creating confusion."

Trustee Andrea Button also voiced support for the change in a telephone interview, saying that it is inaccurate to suggest that the new system will mean "less transparency or the release of fewer records."

"There is no way, whether it's under the village attorney or the village clerk, that we can get around the law; the law is the law," she said.

One trustee, Simone Boutet, strongly opposed the change, citing the recent decision by the Illinois Attorney's Office on the Madison Street traffic count FOIA request. "There's no reason to take that duty away from (the clerk's Office) because she does a good job, and she's the right person to do this job," Boutet said.

Boutet said the change is "part of a continuing effort (by the village) to control information."

* This story was updated to remove reference to the federal Freedom of Information Act. 

tim@oakpark.com

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  • Kitty Conklin (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: January 15th, 2019 1:55 PM

    my issues with the technology have been resolved. My issues with changing the process to remove this function from the Village Clerk, our elected representative, have not been. I hope that the public meeting mentioned on Facebook by Trustee Andrews comes to be reality.

  • Richard Holland from Oak Park (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: January 15th, 2019 10:47 AM

    Once again Mayor Abu-Taleb shows his need to undercut anyone in OP government who would represent an independent voice and not simply serves as a blanket approval for his policies. Recall that he tried without out notice or discussion to strip the Village Clerk position of many of its duties before Ms. Scaman took office. How long are people going to stand for these efforts to remove input and review? Things to think about: 1. Why this ongoing harassment of Ms. Scaman and her office? 2. Why does Oak Park spend money on consultants and reports only to work in direct opposition to their findings (eg the "road diet" where the current plan is directly contrary to the recommendations made). 3) Why do we have the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation? A NFP with a board consisting of Abu-Taleb and hand picked board members, it is a corporation with one funder, the Village. It exists solely to skirt open meetings laws and scrutiny. Go to a board meeting and see Abu-Taleb's rude disdain for public comment and any board member who asks questions. Agendas are posted at the last minute. Public comment asked for after decisions have been made. The Madison projects are breaking ground in 2019 yet zoning hasn't met to discuss yet? How? 4.When positions are being cut in the Village (the Clerks office whittled down to 2 people!!) in the name of budget, yet the village government has increased it's take from the tax levy by 44% since Abu-Taleb took over? Where is the WJ story on that? Remember His title change and salary increase? 5. With the amount of vacant space available in OP, these high rise projects with developers who get sweetheart deals to take money out of OP, skirt taxes and fees are very strange. 6. Why the push to consolidate the village and the township? If that happens watch services to help taxpayers like the work done by the excellent Ali Elsafar go away in order to boost the tax rolls. The press needs to ask some hard questions and aren't doing so.

  • Robert Milstein (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: January 13th, 2019 1:01 PM

    President Anan "Tall Buildings" Abu Taleb continues his desire for control. His inability to understand transparency in government and complete disrespect of an elected official (Clerk) is evidence of his arrogance. Complete your term President Anan and please do not seek a third term. Former Trustee Kuner is correct, except the President only admits " he is wrong" if it serves his agenda, for example he opposes a 28 story near Unity Temple! He would lead you to believe that he really cares what the public thinks. The compromise will be 22 stories...Can we get the transcripts of any secret talks with the developer. OH DEAR! FOIA is in a new department.

  • Rick Kuner from Oak Park (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: January 12th, 2019 2:19 PM

    Moving the FOIA function from the Village Clerk to the Legal staff was a mistake. The Village Clerk is selected by the voters, not the Village Manager or Village Board. Return the function to her. Apologize. Move on.

  • Jeffrey Smith (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: January 10th, 2019 4:26 PM

    Not shocking. A-T is Oak Park's very own mini-me Trump. Clandestine changes in procedure that hide important information from taxpayers, , using taxpayer dollars to benefit "developers" and other elites, ramming through nonsense like the "Madison diet" which will also benefit the entitled instead of the citizens of the Village, and generally making Oak Park more unlivable with each passing day. The signs were all there in his first run for office and in his subsequent "Fisherman and His Wife" demands for more deference, more power and more trappings for his position, as if he had assumed control of 15th century Italian city-state instead of the presidency of a small village in Illinois. It's the Napoleon complex, kids, and woe betide the citizens and the city who find themselves "managed" by such as that. A-T may be the Mayor, but he's attempting the same consolidation of power as Trump and Co., and the more he succeeds at that the more difficult it will be for voters to control the village they call home.

  • Jim Coughlin (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: January 9th, 2019 4:55 PM

    Abu-Taleb and his rubber stamps are again seeking to limit transparency and consolidate power. Oak Park voters will soon elect trustees who should be allowed to study any efforts designed to change how our local government serves the community and responds to residents. There is no reason to rush the implementation of this questionable plan. Let's hear from the candidates seeking election to the Village board and allow for an open and honest debate once the new board members have been sworn into office.

  • Al Rossell (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: January 9th, 2019 4:11 PM

    I recently made a request and after several weeks waiting , i called the clerks office and she never got it. it was sitting in the new system someplace. Personally i think it is a long range plan to eliminate the Village Clerk's job altogether.

  • Galen Gockel (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: January 9th, 2019 2:58 PM

    There is a long history in Oak Park of stripping authority and responsibility from the elected Village Clerk and transferring its tasks to unelected members of the staff. Christine Vernon's post below is well taken. One can only assume that FOIA requests may not always be favorable to the administration, and must be therefore be controlled by staff.

  • Christine Vernon (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: January 9th, 2019 1:52 PM

    Repression of giving information about the Village Board's planning and governing, and other events impacting the Village was never OK,. and it's not now. The opinion and observation of Elizabeth Melara are valuable. She is a seasoned former employee at Village Hall, a former insider and public servant, with years of experience and observation that add up to her being a very credible source. This movement by the Village Board now to limit the opportunity for citizens to exercise a FOIA request just adds to the disenchantment many of us feel with the current Board.

  • David Rechs from Oak Park (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: January 9th, 2019 12:23 PM

    This is easily resolved, by making the electronic system automatically cc the Village Clerk. If she is aware of the FOIA requests, she can challenge denials. As long as she is unaware, she cannot act. Let there be efficiency, but retain oversight.

  • Elizabeth Melara from Oak Park (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: January 9th, 2019 12:02 AM

    The only reason for taking FOIA requesta away from the Clerk's Office is to make the process more difficult for those seeking information that should be easily available. The legal department has always had oversight (which in my experience often delayed the process) but the Clerk's Office has done their best to fulfill FOIA requests in spite of occasional resistance from management. This is an obvious attempt to obstruct the process. Hopefully the public and the presd will not be dissuaded from seeking transparency from those who are supposed to serve us, not keep us in the dark.

  • Kitty Conklin (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: January 8th, 2019 5:09 PM

    Well, I am a citizen who submitted 2 FOIA requests, one on the last day of the old system and one after this new system went live. I am spending time with the VOP this afternoon because the new system does NOT yet work. As an IT business analyst who makes sure software works correctly, I can confidently say that VOP went live with this new system prematurely. I have had nice chats this afternoon with Paul Stephanides and Steve Drazner working through the issues. Abu-Taleb and Button's comments in this article are clearly made without any knowledge of the new system. In addition, the new system is designed to require 3 pieces of info about the person making a FOIA request: 1)an address 2)a phone number and 3) an email address. This means that homeless people cannot submit FOIA requests, a clear violation of law. I still do not have my FOIA requests...and one of them is past the legal deadline.

  • Deborah Kadin (Facebook Verified)

    Posted: January 8th, 2019 1:44 PM

    Tim, why would someone have to file under the Federal FOIA? There's a state law isn't there?

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