April 30, 2014
Mary Frances O'Connor (312) 821-9026
Robert Herguth (312) 821-9030
CHICAGO—The City of Harvey has an abysmal record when it comes to public transparency, and the Better Government Association believes "enough is enough."
With an aim toward improving democracy in the long-troubled south suburb, the BGA recently filed a lawsuit against Harvey in Cook County Circuit Court, accusing the municipal government, led by Mayor Eric Kellogg, of "repeatedly, willfully, and intentionally" violating the state's two main pro-transparency laws: The Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and the Open Meetings Act (OMA).
Except in limited circumstances, FOIA guarantees public access to all public documents. As such, the BGA submitted various record requests (related to payroll, financial transactions and litigation, among other topics) to Harvey under FOIA, but officials either ignored the requests or provided incomplete materials.
"This is totally unacceptable – communities can't just pick and choose what FOIA requests they respond to," said BGA President and CEO Andy Shaw. "The law is the law. The public has a right to ask about the inner workings of government. If public officials don't like it, too bad. They work for us, not the other way around. Enough is enough."
Specifically, the lawsuit states that Harvey "has repeatedly, willfully, and intentionally violated FOIA by failing to respond to Better Government Association's requests and by failing to comply with other straightforward FOIA and OMA requirements."
OMA guarantees public access to public meetings and proceedings. In this regard, the lawsuit accuses Harvey of violating OMA by not posting meeting minutes online among other mandatory documents.
"We live in an electronic information age, which should facilitate information flow rather than impede it," said Matt Topic, a FOIA and intellectual property attorney at Loevy & Loevy who represents BGA in the suit. "That's why FOIA and OMA require that basic information like the government's operating budget, names of its higher-paid employees and the FOIA process itself be posted online. These provisions – as well as the simple requirement that public bodies actually respond to requests in a timely manner – are a critical part of the democratic process."
This is the BGA's second lawsuit in April filed against a local government agency thumbing its nose at FOIA. The BGA earlier sued Schiller Park School District 81 for refusing to turn over confidentiality agreements under FOIA. That case is pending.
In going to the courts, the BGA hopes not only to obtain documents in the public interest, but to deter local government from acting against the public interest.
To read more about the BGA's legal efforts, visit this link:
The Better Government Association is a Chicago-based nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog group that works for integrity, transparency and accountability in government by exposing corruption and inefficiency; identifying and advocating effective public policy; and engaging and mobilizing the public to achieve authentic and responsible reform.