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City of Elmhurst found in violation of FOIA

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014 10:00 a.m. CDT

ELMHURST – The Citizen Advocacy Center questioned the City of Elmhurst's commitment to transparency after the Illinois Attorney General's Public Access Counselor (PAC) ruled the city must disclose documents it previously denied under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

"There's a problem with the application of FOIA in Elmhurst, and this needs to be addressed," said Andrea Alvarez during the public comment portion of Monday's City Council meeting.

Alvarez is a law clerk at the Citizen Advocacy Center (CAC), which describes itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan, community-based legal organization dedicated to protecting democracy.

Alvarez also brought up another ruling by the Public Access Counselor in February 2013 that determined the City of Elmhurst violated the Open Meetings Act after holding two closed-session discussions on the Addison Parking Deck project.

The most recent ruling again found the city failed to comply with transparency legislation with regard to the same Addison Parking Deck project.

Elmhurst resident Tamara Brenner filed a FOIA request in September for documentation supporting financial projects for the parking deck, which were referenced at a Committee of the Whole meeting. Specifically, a 45-foot structure was said to cost $10.5 to $11.5 million and a 65-foot building would cost an additional $3 million.

"The documents I received this [Monday] afternoon just happen to date back to the September 2012 closed-door meetings, which were held in violation of the Open Meetings Act," Brenner said during public comment at Monday's meeting.

"There's always lots of talk about transparency around here, but actions which demonstrate a lack of transparency speak louder," Brenner said.

According to a CAC news release, after Brenner clarified her request, the city denied it under a pre-decisional records exemption, which allows public bodies to withhold drafts, notes and recommendations used by the public body to form an opinion without public scrutiny.

Following the Public Access Counselor's ruling issued Dec. 31, the city released a memo to Brenner from Elmhurst's city manager and a draft proposal with some of the included handwritten notes, which were determined to be "pre-decisional opinions," according to the CAC news release, and weren't referenced in open session.

The city released the documents Monday, the same day staff received the PAC's letter, but City Manager Jim Grabowski did not have any comments Monday when asked if residents should be concerned about the city's transparency in regard to the Addison Parking Deck, but promised a response Tuesday.

The city's news release issued Tuesday referenced instances in which the city has provided information requested under FOIA. Specifically, the city provided more than 900 pages to Brenner during 2013 in regard to the Addison Parking Deck.

"The City acts in an open and transparent manner and appreciates that there is a review process provided under FOIA for clarifications," stated the city's release.

Alvarez also referenced another dissatisfactory FOIA response related to the Addison Parking Deck. The CAC requested information related to the project including Grabowski's, Assistant City Manager Mike Kopp's and Mayor Steve Morley's calendars from May 1 to Oct. 21, 2013, written communication between the Grabowski and Fifth Ward Alderman Chris Healy within the time period and all communication including that between staff, contractors and consultants related to the Addison Avenue project.

Alvarez said the CAC has still not received written communication that she knows exists between Healy and Grabowski, but finally received a calendar Jan. 3, which she implied to be incomplete.

"Is that accurate?" Alvarez asked after submitting a copy of the calendar at Monday's meeting. "If so, I'm really jealous of their schedules."

The city's news release did not respond to Alvarez' comments about the CAC request, but did state the city provided more than 800 pages relating to the Addison Parking Deck to "another requester" between April 4, 2013 and Jan. 2, 2014.

"Now with this PAC determination, I have diminished trust that the city takes seriously its responsibilities under the FOIA," Brenner said Monday. "I have a heightened level of suspicion that full disclosure does not always occur and that documents which should be disclosed are being improperly withheld."

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