Metro-East News

Court to rule on newspaper request for Collinsville city records

A Madison County judge may decide in the next week whether to release documents relating to Collinsville Councilwoman Cheryl Brombolich’s former employment with the city.

The Belleville News-Democrat filed a Freedom of Information Act request in May 2015 requesting a packet of information assembled by former City Manager Scott Williams regarding actions by then-director of operations Cheryl Brombolich. The city denied the FOIA request, at which point the newspaper filed suit, requesting that the courts compel release of the records.

Brombolich had held a dual role as director of operations, which was a position answerable to the city manager, and city clerk, which is a position under the City Council. She was placed on administrative leave on Sept. 9, 2014, and resigned less than a week later. She later was elected to the council.

In July 2015, Williams was fired in a 3-2 vote by the City Council. At the time, councilmen Nancy Moss and Jeff Kypta accused Brombolich and Mayor John Miller of calling for Williams’ termination because of his investigations of both officials. Moss and Kypta alleged that Brombolich used her city-issued credit cards and city accounts for personal purchases and concealed the transactions, then attempted to coerce Finance Director Tamara Ammann to cover it up.

“When the director of finance refused to hide those violations, Cheryl Brombolich abruptly resigned her position and repaid the money to the city in lieu of facing discharge,” Moss said at the time.

Brombolich could not be reached for comment and in the past has declined to comment.

The News-Democrat began requesting records in May 2015, centered on Williams’ investigation of Brombolich’s actions while she was a city employee. The requests were denied, and the News-Democrat appealed in Madison County Circuit Court. The newspaper’s request for a summary judgment came before Associate Judge Don Flack on Friday.

The city of Collinsville is not the first to so broadly invoke the exemption. It’s a matter of public interest; it’s something that the public has a right to know.

Esther Seitz, attorney for the News-Democrat

The city was required to provide the documents to the court under seal. The list of documents includes: a number of internal emails between Williams and other city employees, including Ammann and City Councilwoman Nancy Moss; emails with attachments; memos written in 2004 and 2005 to former City Manager Hank Sinda and the City Council; a 2006 police report from the Collinsville Police Department; an order of withholding; letters from a former Belleville News-Democrat reporter, and notes about a 1998 criminal charge against Brombolich alleging manufacturing and delivering cannabis. Those charges were later dropped.

Attorney Esther Seitz, representing the News-Democrat and Illinois Press Association, argued there are at least three court cases involving disciplinary records of public employees that each ruled that the documents had to be released, and only performance reviews were exempt. She said if the court rules that the documents are exempt from public review, it would be the first court to so rule.

“The city of Collinsville is not the first to so broadly invoke the exemption,” Seitz said. “It’s a matter of public interest; it’s something that the public has a right to know.”

City attorney Steve Giacoletto argued that the cited cases do not specifically apply to these particular circumstances, and said a ruling that made these documents public would have a chilling effect on public bodies.

“The message for public employers will be, ‘Don’t create a file, don’t assemble a disciplinary case,’ because it’ll be subject to FOIA,” Giacoletto said.

Flack said he was not convinced many of the FOIA exemptions cited apply to this case, but he needed more time to review the material. He said he was concerned about protecting the deliberative process for a public body in deciding these issues.

“I do know there’s a line somewhere, but in fairness to counsel, I need to review the case more,” Flack said.

He said a ruling might be issued within the next week.

Giacoletto declined to comment.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald