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Local News

Aldermen question why their requests were in Geneva FOIA report

GENEVA – When a Geneva alderman’s recent request for old records was listed on the city’s November Freedom of Information Act report, it sparked discussion at a city meeting.

According to the report, it took 3 hours and 15 minutes for city staff to find the records, resulting in a $220.50 cost.

In a Nov. 19 email to City Administrator Mary McKittrick, 5th Ward Alderman Tom Simonian had requested the first year that each of the city’s four union contracts had been negotiated; who negotiated them and all subsequent union contracts; how many union members in each; and copies of each of those initial contracts.

“This was the first time I’d seen an alderman’s name on there,” Simonian said at a recent Geneva City Council meeting. “It just made me uncomfortable, honestly.”

The issue was whether an elected official’s request for information should have been included in the FOIA report, the same way it is done for a citizen’s request.

McKittrick said the four questions required substantial time and research, particularly the original IBEW contracts from 1976, which involved staff going to the public works facility on South Street to look for it.

“I made that call to it being a FIOA,” McKittrick said. “ ‘Does this meet the definition of a FOIA?’ Yes, we are looking for documents. We’re looking for minutes.”

McKittrick said it does not make sense for a request based on city business to be listed in the Freedom of Information Act report. But since Simonian’s questions were not pertinent to current or upcoming city business, it became an open records request, she said.

“I’ll preface everything, ‘This is city business. I’m doing it for this reason,’ “ Simonian said, adding his requests would not be construed as an open records request.

Mayor Kevin Burns said when he saw Simonian’s and 5th Ward Alderman Craig Maladra’s names in the November FOIA report, he called McKittrick to ask why. 

“And then I read the statute,” Burns said. 

Not being a trained and certified FOIA officer, Burns said he deferred to McKittrick’s “expertise and insight.” McKittrick said the city’s monthly report on FOIAs is an administrative process to track time spent and equivalent money that it costs to gather that information.

Maladra had requested a record that was filed by a citizen, so it was forwarded via email to him at no further cost to the city, McKittrick said

Reading from the city code, however, 2nd Ward Alderman Richard Marks said all records kept by the city are to be open for inspection to any member of the council at all reasonable times.

“That tells me that the information should be given to us and should not be on a FOIA request,” Marks said. 

“You think employees – professional staff – should be sent to public works to be looking through lockers and files?” Burns asked. 

“That is what code says. We have the right to that information, and it shouldn’t be FOIA’d,” Marks responded. “It’s not a FOIA request if it’s done by a council member.”

“That does not preclude it from being a FOIA,” McKittrick said. “We would provide any information … whether we count that as a FOIA. It’s trying to be accountable for the time spent.”

Burns later added that public officials should not be treated differently than the public when asking for information not germane to current city business.

“The city has invested time and resources into training FOIA officers to know the law,” Burns wrote in a text in a response to a question. “Asking for special exemptions for elected officials, appointed officials and staff is contrary to good governance and transparency.”

Simonian said he was interested in the past union contracts to see their progression. He said it was pertinent to city business.

“My personal opinion, their [raises] should be tied to the consumer price index or inflation,” Simonian said. “I’ve had an argument since I’ve been on the council about union contracts not being fair to citizens of Geneva.”

Marks said he disagreed with including Simonian’s questions as a FOIA request.

“I think if an alderman makes a reasonable request, there is no reason to put it down as a FOIA and put a cost to it,” Marks said. “That does not make a lot of sense.”

Besides, Marks said the union contracts dating to the 1970s should have been more readily available.

“Why are union contracts, that were probably approved by ordinance, sitting up in a carton in public works?” Marks asked. “I would hope at some point we’d start scanning that stuff in. What’s in what box? I do not know how they keep track of what’s where.”

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