Orland Park, Illinois
The Orland Park Public Library is at it again, seemingly having learned nothing after being sued in 2014 for multitudinous violations of both the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Open Meetings Act (OMA). As reported here on this site at the time, that was a successful lawsuit filed against the Library in chancery court which resulted in a $55,000 payment to plaintiffs and compulsory production of stacks of documents that the Library had been refusing to produce to the public (including documents involved with billing and questionable payments that were excessively redacted in ways in which the FOIA statute does not allow). According to the Library’s spokesman at the time and legal billing records produced via FOIA production, in total the OPPL squandered upwards of $500,000 in its fight to keep embarrassing documents and proof of child pornography being accessed in the library from being scrutinized by the public. (This landmark lawsuit and the entire saga involved with compelling the Orland Park Public Library to comply with the Freedom of Information Act is well-documented in the 2016 book, SHUT UP!: The Bizarre War that One Public Library Waged Against the First Amendment.)
Here in July 2017, the Orland Park Public Library (OPPL) is up to its old tricks — while also trying out some new ones — in its continued attempts to evade FOIA production so that the public can not see exactly what its staff and Board Members are up to with the public funds that this wayward public body continues to spend frivolously.
Several FOIA requests made to the OPPL this month have been stymied, with the Library outright refusing to produce documents but citing no valid section of the FOIA statute that would allow a public body to refuse document production. In one instance, when asked to produce records of payments made in recent years to relatives of Library Director Mary Weimar, the OPPL responded that it would not be producing these documents, claiming it produced them to someone already back in June 2016. The Illinois FOIA statute does not provide for a public body to refuse production of documents by asserting that it already produced them to someone more than a year ago. A FOIA request made in July 2017 for these records of payment requires the OPPL to produce these records of payment in July 2017, regardless of what it may or may not have done with a similar request in June of 2016.
Let’s consider that for a moment. What the OPPL is asserting here is that it only has to produce a document once and can then refuse to ever produce that document again; clearly this was not the intent of the Illinois state legislature when writing the FOIA statute, or they would have included a section containing such a severe limitation to FOIA production. The OPPL admits it has the documents requested in its possession and in electronic format, but it is refusing to produce the documents because the Library claims it already produced them to someone more than a year ago. If the Orland Park Public Library would be allowed to stymie document production in this way, then anyone who has a computer crash or misplaces a document produced by a public body would never have another opportunity to obtain that document again. Since the expressed intent of the state legislature when drafting the FOIA statute was to provide more (and not less) transparency of government and more (and not less) access to documents in the possession of public bodies, the OPPL is wrong here to claim it can refuse document production because it does not want to provide payment records a second time for relatives of the Library Director receiving taxpayer funds from the public body that she’s in charge of.
It would in fact be an undue and unnecessary burden placed on the public whereby anyone obtaining a copy of a document from a public body would get only one chance to ever ask for that document; if the document was lost, accidentally deleted, or damaged in any way, then the public would be punished and penalized by never being allowed to receive that document again. Clearly, that is an excessive burden to any observer of a public body or FOIA requester to be forced to keep track of every document ever asked for and never be permitted to misplace or misfile anything and ask for a replacement copy (more than a year later, in this case).
The other recent FOIA violations the Orland Park Public Library appears to have committed are an echo of what resulted in the Library being sued in chancery court and compelled to pay that whopping $55,000 settlement. Here, the OPPL produced incident reports and spending documents where the Library chose to aggressively redact the names of employees involved in either chronicling or witnessing the incidents in question or requesting and/or signing-off on various spending engaged in by OPPL employees in recent months.
In making these redactions, the OPPL has asserted a claim of “privacy,” contending that the public should not know the names of the OPPL employees who compiled the incident reports or who spent public funds by completing the Library’s credit card authorization paperwork. The Illinois Freedom of Information Act does not provide an exemption to document production whereby the names of public employees involved in workplace incidents or wasteful spending of public funds are ever deemed “private.”
Consider for a moment the ramifications to transparency and public participation in government if the OPPL was allowed to get away with this egregious violation of the FOIA statute: the public would never be able to know which public employees completed any paperwork or spent any money, because the OPPL asserts that their names could always be redacted. The public requires knowledge of which actors in a public body are involved in incidents that occur and which staff or board members are spending the public body’s funds frivolously. How could the public ever hold government actors accountable if the public is not allowed to know who those people are?
Here, the Orland Park Public Library appears to want to obscure who exactly is spending the Library’s money so frivolously or make it harder for the public to determine who is writing the Library’s incident reports (which document crimes, misdeeds, and dangers in this suburban Chicago library). There is no provision of the Illinois FOIA statute that allows the OPPL to do this and completely conceal the names of these parties involved.
The Orland Park Public Library now faces another Request for Review inquiry by the Public Access Counselor’s Office, which is a department functioning under the Illinois Attorney General’s umbrella. The OPPL has lost nearly every time it has gone up against the AG’s office, in addition to losing when sued for FOIA violations in chancery court.
It would seem that the duly-elected Board Members of the Orland Park Public Library would have a fiduciary duty at this point to intervene and demand that OPPL staffers comply fully with the FOIA statute, lest the OPPL risk finding itself on the receiving end of yet another lawsuit in chancery court. That fiduciary duty should also include notifying the OPPL’s insurance carrier that its staff members are yet again engaging in games-playing with and obstruction of FOIA requests, since the last time the OPPL partook in such a course of action it resulted in a huge settlement for plaintiffs. Isn’t the library’s insurance carrier entitled to a heads-up from the Board that the OPPL is deciding to invite a second lawsuit of this nature (which it would most certainly lose)? It is a wonder that this particular public body was even able to find another insurance company willing to cover them after the OPPL’s defeats in court in recent years. Could it be argued that the OPPL is now acting in bad faith by engaging in behavior that in the past resulted in litigation without informing its insurance carrier that it’s decided to resume such behavior in 2017?
A reasonable person would have learned from past mistakes and vowed to never again toy with the FOIA statute in these ways, but history has shown there are few reasonable (or sane) people at the helm of the Orland Park Public Library. How much public money will be wasted in this new round of Freedom of Information Act brinksmanship?
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