The city of Collinsville should not have withheld public records from the Belleville News-Democrat and is ordered to turn them over, a Madison County judge ruled Friday.
The BND had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for a packet of information assembled by former City Manager Scott Williams regarding the actions of then-director of operations Cheryl Brombolich. The city denied the request, stating that the records were covered under personnel exemptions.
Both sides argued before Madison County Associate Judge Don Flack last week. The News-Democrat argued that FOIA exemptions only extend to personnel reviews, and the documents assembled by Williams for City Council members in a disciplinary case were not exempt. Collinsville, represented by City Attorney Steve Giacoletto, argued that a ruling making the documents public would have a chilling effect on public bodies, discouraging them from assembling files for disciplinary cases.
Flack ruled in the News-Democrat’s favor Friday. “(Collinsville) cannot demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the documents requested by (the News-Democrat) are exempt from disclosure,” he wrote.”
“Obviously we are happy about the judge’s support of our position,” News-Democrat Vice President and Editor Jeffry Couch said. “We never had any question that these documents were public records. Collinsville city officials should have released them long ago. It’s unfortunate that Collinsville’s decision to keep them secret forced us to file a lawsuit, but we felt we had a duty to follow up and support the public’s right to know.”
Giacoletto said he wished the outcome would have been different. “But from the oral argument on the motion, it was apparent that Judge Flack put a lot of thought and effort into making his decision, and for that I am grateful,” he said.
During her employment with the city, Brombolich held a dual role as director of operations and city clerk. She was placed on administrative leave on Sept. 9, 2014, and resigned less than a week later. She later was elected to the City Council.
(Collinsville) cannot demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the documents requested by (the News-Democrat) are exempt from disclosure.
Madison County Associate Judge Donald Flack
In July 2015, Williams was fired as city manager 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 Brombolich and the mayor.
Moss and Kypta alleged that Brombolich used her city-issued credit cards for personal purchases, concealed the transactions, and attempted to coerce Finance Director Tamara Ammann to cover it up. Moss alleged that Brombolich resigned her position and repaid the money to avoid further consequences.
The News-Democrat began requesting records in May 2015, centered on Williams’ investigation. Those records, as listed by the city to the court under seal, include internal emails between Williams and other city employees including Ammann; emails with Amazon.com attachments; memos dating to 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 and other documents.
News-Democrat attorney Esther Seitz argued that at least three court cases involving disciplinary records of public employees had each ruled that the documents had to be released. Giacoletto had argued that the cases did not specifically apply to these circumstances.
The order requires Collinsville to produce the documents within 10 days. However, the city has 30 days in which to decide to appeal. The case will continue in the event the judge is needed to address any redactions of information within the documents, and to determine any additional issues regarding fees and costs.
Seitz said that the private information that may still be redacted is limited to items such as Social Security numbers, driver’s license information, access codes, medical records, personal telephone numbers and email addresses or similar data.