Good evening Plainfield Township Park District Board Members. My name is Maryam Judar and I am the Executive Director and a community lawyer at Citizen Advocacy Center. CAC is a non-profit, non-partisan, community-based legal organization with a mission to build democracy in the 21st century. Among the many projects CAC is involved with, our community lawyers assist people in Illinois with navigating the local government decision making system so that they may affect policy decisions on issues that matter to them most. We also work with government bodies to develop policies and procedures that increase government accountability, transparency, and accessibility to the people they serve.
I am before you today to address the characterization of members of your community on the Plainfield Township Park District government website. Currently, a November 4, 2013 entry is posted referencing Requests for Reviews to the Public Access Counselor's office filed by members of the community. The description of the community members on the website who filed the reviews is a “small group of radicals” who use the PAC review process to “possibly harass the Plainfield Park District Board for its decisions.”
The entry goes on to state that “[i]t is our opinion at the Park District that these complaints were frivolous and a financial distraction from our mission.”
With respect to the public use of going to the PAC, it is important to understand that the PAC serves as an ombudsman between government and its citizens on open government matters. The Public Access Counselor’s office is dedicated to vetting FOIA and OMA issues when the answers are not obvious. Both government entities AND members of the public contact the PAC for answers about FOIA and OMA questions.
The Plainfield Township Park District website characterized the citizens’ use of going to the PAC as “frivolous” and
“potential harassment.” Such characterization of concerned citizens using a legal process to clarify questions about government functioning, especially when the FOIA and OMA legal analyses start with a presumption of disclosure and openness unless there is a valid exemption, is a misunderstanding of the purpose of the PAC and that the
Park District’s response to such inquiries is part of the cost of public business, as well as a misunderstanding of the role of a citizen in a democracy.
With respect to how concerned citizens are characterized on the website, using negative connotations appears to be intended to serve as a chilling effect on members of the public who disagree with government decisions
and how those opinions are expressed. Is it a policy of this Board to belittle the public so as to discourage public participation, the questioning of how government functions, and the use of a resource that is specifically in place to
answer questions of public concern? How does this meet the mission of the Park District?
If you do agree that it is not the policy of the Board to belittle public engagement, we request that such offensive language be removed from the website immediately so that the ostensible values of the public body with respect to citizen engagement – regardless of whether you agree with the viewpoints expressed – is reflected on the website.
If you do not agree, and find that such characterizations on the Park District website adequately reflect the values of the Park Board with respect to citizen engagement, may I suggest that the Citizen Advocacy Center might be of assistance to you in rethinking how to approach citizen participation. CAC has worked with public bodies to help them achieve a higher level of government transparency and accountability, and most recently with Wheaton Park District – at their request. We would be willing to help the Plainfield Township Park District assess their processes and procedures for engaging the public and in streamlining how it provides information to the public so as to lessen its cost relative to FOIA – free of charge to the park district.
Clearly there is a disconnect in how the Board is relating to the public it serves. I suggest that this disconnect does not originate with concerned citizens, but rather it originates in the dysfunctional manner in how the Board interacts with concerned citizens that is causing - as it states on the Park District’s website - “the financial expense to the taxpayers that could have been spent expanding programs for children, veterans, and seniors here in our community.”
For more about the November 13th meeting, check out the following articles:
Plainfield Patch: Peck Calls Citizens ‘Radicals;’ Resident Ejected from Park Board Meeting
The Herald News/Chicago Sun Times: Resident booted from Plainfield meeting