Download the letter or read below.
Commissioner William Waldack
c/o Village of Downers Grove
801 Burlington Ave
Downers Grove, IL 60515
July 2, 2015
Dear Commissioner Waldack:
This letter responds to concerns you expressed at the June 16, 2015 Downers Grove Village Council Meeting about Citizen Advocacy Center’s comments that had been made at the previous Council Meeting regarding a perceived, potential conflict of interest and the general level of public participation with respect to the Village’s presentation of the Clyde Estates project. You also asked on whose behalf Citizen Advocacy Center (CAC) appeared at the meeting and about the research on which CAC drew conclusions. Your comments and questions provide an opportunity for me to discuss CAC’s mission, as well as our purpose in attending the Council Meeting on June 9, 2015. CAC recognizes that, even though public officials invest substantial time and energy into making informed decisions in the best interest of the community, when issues and decisions are controversial not everyone will be satisfied with the result. The Clyde Estates project certainly seems to be a case in point.
General Information Regarding CAC
CAC was founded in 1994 as a nonpartisan, nonprofit community law office located in Elmhurst. The mission of CAC is to build democracy by strengthening the citizenry’s capacities, resources, and institutions for self-governance. CAC community lawyers use civic tools to promote meaningful participation in the democratic process. This strategy includes traditional lawyering, community organizing, public policy research, coalition building, media outreach, leadership development, legal advocacy, civic education, and litigation. CAC has a long history in working with community members and public bodies. We advocate for government decision-making processes where government entities not only comply with minimum legal standards but become models of the democratic process through adopting practices that maximize government transparency, accountability, and accessibility.
Citizen Advocacy Center most often becomes involved with an issue when a concerned citizen, public official, or member of the media contacts our office. CAC answers questions about what the law is in a particular area, what government bodies are required to do to comply with the law, how an individual can participate to improve a government process, and how an individual can advocate for a position using legal and civic tools. Community lawyering assistance is based on government process issues. As such, the word “advocacy” in our name does not refer to advocacy for an individual’s specific issue but rather how to engage in advocacy for one’s cause.
When CAC identifies and seeks to address a systemic issue, we do so through a community lawyer or an intern who is supervised by a community lawyer. CAC has a highly regarded internship program that since 1994 has hosted over 200 students, the majority of them law students. The internship program offers a unique opportunity for students to gain hands-on experience in understanding how government operates.
CAC Issues of Concern Raised in Downers Grove
CAC was contacted by a Downers Grove resident who raised concerns about disclosures of potential conflicts of interest and about the significance of resident input for the Clyde Estates Project. After reviewing available information and documents with respect to the questions brought to our attention, CAC identified some ways in which we believe democratic practices could be improved.
With respect to the conflict of interest issue, CAC conducted research, reviewed publicly available materials, materials made available through the FOIA process, and spoke with concerned residents. CAC concluded that a conflict of interest was not present. However, considering the controversial nature of the project it was understandable how there could be a perceived conflict of interest among the general public. CAC identified specific procedures that could be adopted to increase standards. CAC recognizes that it is your viewpoint that clear disclosures were made to the Village Staff and members of the Council members during the planning phase. CAC, however, addressed the issue of what processes are in place to ensure that the disclosures are also clear to members of the public seeking to educate themselves on proposed projects. Working toward our mission to address systemic issues of concern related to the democratic process, CAC commented on how to address perceived, potential conflicts of interest at the June 9, 2015 meeting. While the comments were in reference to the Clyde Estate project, the adoption of higher standards would apply to all proposed projects in Downers Grove to avoid similar concerns in the future.
With respect to the public engagement piece, after speaking with concerned citizens about the meetings that took place, reviewing documents, and having a CAC community lawyer observe the Council’s interaction and response to the public, CAC concluded that while the process may have been quite extensive and certainly complied with the law, still more could have been done to engage the citizens and give them a voice in the project. As such, the public comment made by a CAC community lawyer regarding a “no” vote was not a commentary on the substantive project but rather a commentary that the Village Council should withhold approving the project until a higher standard of public engagement had been met. While CAC recognizes that not everyone could be completely satisfied with the outcome of such a controversial project, we advocate for the most transparent, accessible, and interactive process that is possible.
I welcome this opportunity to discuss how Downers Grove may increase democratic protocols to become a model of government transparency, accountability, and accessibility. If you think that an additional discussion could be helpful, I would be happy to meet with you.
Please accept my personal invitation to you and all the Commissioners to join us on July 28, at 7 p.m. at the CAC office located at 182 N. York Street in Elmhurst for Intern Democracy Night, where current students will be sharing their internship experiences.
Executive Director/Community Lawyer
cc: Mayor Martin Tully, Commissioner Bob Barnett, Commissioner David Olsen, Commissioner Greg Hosé, Commissioner Gina Vattimo, Commissioner Bill White
We want to keep you informed. If you have any questions, please call us at 630-833-4080.
This bill would deprive you of information that is rightfully yours! It could pass the Illinois House of Representatives this week unless you contact your Representative to urge them to vote NO!
Transparency is threatened once again in Illinois.
Two editorials published this week at Quad-Cities Online cite a CAC survey of over 750 public websites in Illinois as one reason that HB261, this Illinois lack of public notice bill, is a terrible idea.
HB261 proposes to eliminate public notices from newspapers (and from PublicNoticeIllinois.com where every public notice published in newspapers around the state is posted). It would allow notices to be posted ONLY on individual government websites.
CAC survey results showed that despite public notices on websites, many government bodies do not comply. Only 73% posted notices of meetings, 57% posted meeting agendas, and 48% posted meeting minutes.
The changes proposed by HB261 would make it difficult, if not impossible, for local citizens to act as watchdogs over their tax dollars and to monitor the more than 7,000 public bodies in Illinois.
The bill's sponsor claims modernization and access will result. Yet many Illinois residents do not have access to high-speed internet.
Please read the editorials: Illinois public notice bill terrible for state's taxpayers and Public notices need to be noticed to be effective and contact your state legislators to let them know you oppose HB261.
An editorial in the Quad-Cities Online yesterday cites the results of a CAC survey, conducted in conjunction with the Illinois Press Association, of over 750 public websites in Illinois as one reason that the proposed Illinois public notice bill would be terrible for state's taxpayers.
The upshot is that HB261 would eliminate public notices from newspapers and allow them to be posted on government websites. This change would make it much harder for local citizens to act as watchdogs over public bodies and tax dollars.
Read the editorial here.
MEDIA ADVISORY – Press Conference
Good Government Advocates Urge Illinois General Assembly to Forego Override of IL Freedom of Information Act Strong - Governor Quinn Vetoes Bill on Friday June 27th, the same day it reaches his desk.
What: Press conference convened by Citizen Advocacy Center of good government groups calling on the Illinois General Assembly to forego a veto of HB 3796 that amends the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and weakens FOIA’s intent to ensure necessary access to public records so that the public can effectively monitor government bodies to keep them accountable.
HB 3796 creates a new category within the FOIA that can designate a request “voluminous” based on how much information is requested within one FOIA request. The bill also implements a new fee structure that allows public bodies to charge as much as $100 for electronic data and allows public bodies to not respond to FOIA requests under certain circumstances. For more information regarding HB3796 visit www.CitizenAdvocacyCenter.org
Citizen Advocacy Center, Maryam Judar
Illinois PIRG, Abe Scarr
Better Government Association, Andy Shaw
Illinois Policy Institute, Brian Costin
Citizen Watchdog and Frequent FOIA Requester – Dr. Tamara Brenner
In addition to the organizations presenting, this effort is also endorsed by Chicago Headline Club, ACLU of Illinois, Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, and Dick Simpson, UIC Political Science Professor and Former Chicago Alderman.
When: Monday, June 30th at 10:30 a.m.
Where: Illinois State Building (Thompson Center)
15th Floor, Blue Room
100 W. Randolph St.
Chicago, IL 60601
Go through security on first floor; then take elevator to 15th floor
# # #
Citizen Advocacy Center is a non-profit, non-partisan free community legal organization dedicated to building democracy for the 21st century by strengthening the citizenry's capacities, resources, and institutions for self-governance.
REASON #10: NO OPPORTUNITY WAS GIVEN FOR PUBLIC CONSUMPTION OR DEBATE. HB 3796 was introduced the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend, one week before the end of the session. While Illinoisans were honoring those who have defended democracy as members of our U.S. military, the General Assembly was limiting the public’s right to participate in the democratic process. HB 3796 affects individuals who monitor government, ad hoc citizen groups who organize to address issues of public concern, average citizens who want to learn more about government, and lawyers who represent individuals or community groups in addressing issues of public concern.
REASON #9: THE INTERNET ACCESS PROVISION CONTRADICTS THE FOIA PROVISION THAT ALLOWS REQUESTERS THE RIGHT TO INSPECT THE PHYSICAL COPY OF THE RECORD.* HB 3796 bypasses the requester’s right to inspect original records by allowing the public body to respond to FOIA by notifying “the requester that the public record is available online and direct[ing] the requester to the website where the record can be reasonably accessed.” **
REASON #8: 5 ILCS 140/3 (e)(vi) ALREADY ALLOWS GOVERNMENT ENTITIES MORE TIME TO RESPOND TO REQUESTS. Public bodies can invoke an additional 5 days if they need more time to respond so that compliance will not unduly burden or interfere with government operation.
REASON #7: 5 ILCS 140/3(g) ALREADY ALLOWS GOVERNMENT ENTITIES A MECHANISM TO MANAGE LARGE REQUESTS. The “unduly burdensome” provision allows public bodies to determine that the burden on the public body to produce requested information outweighs public interest in disclosure.
REASON #6: NO DOCUMENTATION HAS BEEN RELEASED TO THE PUBLIC TO ILLUSTRATE SYSTEMIC ABUSE. Public bodies have not documented the perceived problem this bill allegedly will solve. Further, FOIA is an “intent neutral” law; no requester has to tell the public body why a record is sought.
REASON #5: VOLUMINOUS REQUEST DESIGNATIONS WILL RESULT IN LESS MEANINGFUL PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT. To intelligently address issues of public concern, a routine FOIA request can easily exceed the proposed thresholds. A routine FOIA to address community development and economic issues would include all (1) minutes, (2) agendas, (3) all staff communications, (4) applications, (5) financial data, (6) contracts, (7) consultant reports, (8) comprehensive plan, and (9) attorney billing records for a particular time period.
REASON #4: HB 3796 CREATES THE “HAVES” AND “HAVE NOTS” OF PUBLIC ACCESS.
The fee scale for electronic data unfairly penalizes Illinoisans with lower incomes and who wish to civically engage, and it will create a class of citizens who have financial means to access them and a class that doesn’t.
REASON #3: HB 3796 COMPLICATES AND DETERS THE USE OF FOIA BY AVERAGE CITIZENS.
The provisions for voluminous requests, access to online documents, and electronic data cost provisions have unnecessarily complicated the FOIA so that a lawyer is necessary to untangle the red tape of the procedures for accessing information.
REASON #2: THE VOLUMINOUS REQUEST PROVISION WORKS IN CONJUNCTION WITH THE RECURRENT REQUESTER PROVISION TO SQUEEZE OUT THE PUBLIC. The recurrent requester provision limits how many FOIA requests can be made in a certain time frame. Voluminous request provisions limit how much can be requested at one time. A requester is potentially forced to choose: be labeled recurrent or voluminous! Either road, the end point is the same: less access to public records.
AND THE #1 REASON GOVERNOR QUINN SHOULD VETO HB 3796 is:
HB 3796 LIMITS HOW PUBLIC INFORMATION IS DISTRIBUTED WHILE PLACING NO RESPONSIBILITY ON PUBLIC BODIES TO MAKE MORE INFORMATION AVAILABLE.
Public bodies claim hardship without bearing any responsibility for making more public records available without requiring requests, which would benefit all parties.
* 5ILCS 3(a); DesPain v. City of Collinsville, 88N.E.2d 163 (2008).
** H.R. 3796 98th Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Ill. 2014).
IT’S SUNSHINE WEEK! In addition to engaging in dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information, this is a time to get acquainted with government data sets! Government bodies are releasing millions of data sets that are available at our fingertips and easily searchable. For starters, check out data about your state, county, city, your ZIP code, your school district or even your specific school. Here is a list of websites to get you started.
GOVERNMENT DATA AT YOUR FINGERTIPS
Find federal datasets concerning specific municipalities. Search by topic, also.
Search and browse hundreds of city datasets. Search by category or topic.
Find federal datasets concerning specific counties. Search by topic, also.
Find birth, marriage, & death records; delinquent property tax search; Cook County ordinances; election results; polling locations; directory of elected officials; maps; lobbyist reports; TIF property searches, reports, and maps; and ethics filings.
Search for federal datasets concerning states. Search by topic, also.
Search and browse thousands of state datasets. Search by municipality, category, or topic.
Illinois Sex Offender Information
Illinois Department of Transportation
Find project information and maps
Illinois Report Card
Find facts about individual schools, including ISAT scores, PSAE scores, total enrollment, number of schools, number of teachers, student mobility, graduation rates, college readiness rates, instructional average spending per student, and average operational spending per student. Also, view indicators of academic progress, district environment, student characteristics. Compare your school to others.
Portal to search for federal datasets for cities, counties, and states.
Search for federal contracts by agency, department, vendor, or fiscal year.
U.S. Census Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics
View combined federal, state, and Census Bureau data on employers and employees. Statistics on employment, earnings, and job flows at detailed levels of geography and industry and for different demographic groups.
Toxics Release Inventory Program
Enter an address for maps locating toxic chemicals in your community.
Access reports and downloadable files tracking the management of more than 650 toxic chemicals used at U.S. industrial facilities.
Information on millions of companies worldwide. Search by name, filter by jurisdiction.
Offshore Leaks Database
Search for offshore companies and trusts, by country.
Search through 450 online databases across 120 countries for information on shareholders, directors, and financial reports of companies worldwide.
Thanks to reporter Jeff Lowenstein for compiling this list and for his fantastic presentation at the Chicago Headline Club sponsored FOIA Fest 2014 hosted at Loyola University to kickoff Sunshine Week.