Belleville city hall battle yields new rules on public information

News-DemocratFebruary 1, 2014 

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert in a 2013 file photo.

ZIA NIZAMI — znizami@bnd.com

— The city will use a new procedure and web system to handle requests for public records following tension between the mayor and city clerk.

Since the municipal election in April, Mayor Mark Eckert and City Clerk Dallas Cook have been at odds over whose job it is to gather and release public information.

The new rules are meant to clear up any misunderstandings over who is responsible for responding to Freedom of Information Act requests in a timely manner.

Although Eckert and Cook support the new procedures, the ordinance does not address a core difference between the two officials.

Whereas Cook believes it to be a last resort for residents to file a formal Freedom of Information Act request, Eckert maintains it should be a standard practice so the city has documentation on what records are disseminated, and for what purpose. This protects the city legally, Eckert said.

"My goal is that we can give you the information you want as you stand here (at City Hall)," Cook said. "The information does not belong to the city. It is the public's information. As long as we are legally in the clear, we should provide it."

"FOIA should only be used to hold governments accountable when officials say 'no' when they should say 'yes.'" Cook added.

Cook has said Eckert interfered in his attempts at improving transparency at City Hall by not designating Cook the city's chief FOIA officer, and insisting on reviewing every records request.

Eckert, in turn, said Cook needs to be more careful in documenting what records Cook releases to the public and allowing residents into the city's records vaults because of liability issues.

"I'm not trying to be difficult or less transparent, but my job is to protect the city and do what is best for the city," Eckert has said.

Voters in April elected Eckert, of the Belleville Good Government Party, to his third term and Cook, an independent, to his first term.

The City Council recently passed an ordinance that explains who the city's FOIA officers are and the process of responding to public information requests, among other things.

The ordinance stipulates that:

* The city clerk is designated the chief FOIA officer.

* The city treasurer, assistant city treasurer, mayor's assistant, city clerk's assistant, police chief or designee, and fire chief or designee are the city's deputy FOIA officers.

* Records should be retrieved by the FOIA officer or a city employee, and not by the party requesting the document or a non-city employee.

*Whenever the city receives a request, the FOIA officer needs to note when the request was made, when the response is due, and keep an electronic or paper copy of the request.

* When the request isn't processed right away, the FOIA officer needs to give a copy of the request to the mayor and all relevant city departments within one business day. Employees compiling the information need to get back to the FOIA officer in two business days. Then the FOIA officer has one more business day to write a response and clear it with the city attorney before replying to the public.

Cook's point is that the city should give residents information that is readily available and should not make residents fill out a request for everything. And, residents shouldn't have to wait five days for information just because the city has that much time to respond under the law

For instance, if a resident asks for minutes from a City Council meeting in December, the city should be able to point the resident to the city's website, where the minutes are available, or make a copy without making the resident fill out paperwork, Cook said.

But Eckert said some requests need to be reviewed carefully. The clerk might not know that information a resident requests involves ongoing negotiations that could put a lawsuit or business agreement at risk. Such information should be reviewed by the city attorney before it is released.

In any case, Eckert said it is not OK for Cook to allow non-employees into the city's document storage areas.

Cook said he allowed one resident to look through documents in the city's vault with a scanner because it saved the city from making paper copies and it saved the staff time from looking up information.

Another of Cook's concerns is that requests are received by multiple departments in the city and there isn't a centralized way for the clerk's office to keep track of the requests. Cook said this was happening in part because Eckert did not make him the chief FOIA officer.

Sometimes residents ask for records from the Housing Department or Police Department, for example, and the requests never cross Cook's desk.

As the city clerk, Cook is responsible for receiving and responding to public records requests within five days, in most cases. If other departments do not tell Cook about a request, and then fail to respond in five days, Cook may be at fault, he said.

Cook said he hopes a new records management system will get city staff on the same page.

The council unanimously approved a contract with WebQA until April 30, 2017, for a system to manage FOIA requests.

The city will pay a one-time installation and training fee of $2,250 and a monthly cost of $250 for the WebQA service.

The system works like this: When the public submits a request online or an employee uploads a request, then everyone authorized to use the system will be alerted to the request.

Cook can then keep track of when each request is due and check on the city department that is gathering the information to fulfill the request.

The city received 291 FOIA request forms in 2013, according to Cook.

Ward 4 Alderman Jim Davidson believes the system will only work if employees follow protocol. If employees do not upload requests to WebQA in a timely manner, then Cook will have the same problem as before.

City Attorney Garrett Hoerner said ideally all requests will be submitted to the city clerk's office. Hoerner drafted the city's FOIA ordinance based on a model from the Illinois Municipal League.

Though slightly inconvenient for the public, if a resident is at the Housing Department and asks for a public record, the Housing staff should direct the resident to the clerk's office in City Hall, which is about a block away, Hoerner has said.

Cook also said the electronic system will help the city see if a resident is a recurrent requester, which means the person makes multiple requests in a certain time frame.

If someone is a recurrent requester, then the city can take longer than the usual five days to respond. Right now city staff needs to manually count how many times a person has requested information, Cook said.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 618-239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDJLee.

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