Metro-East News

BND lawsuit led to release of records after court fight with Collinsville

The eight-month court battle over documents pertaining to the use of city credit cards and tax-free accounts for personal purchases came down to one thing: Was there enough evidence to keep the records from the public?

In the end, Madison County Associate Judge Donald Flack decided the documents should be released.

“(Collinsville) cannot demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the documents requested by (the News-Democrat) are exempt from disclosure, “ he wrote in his ruling Jan. 15.

In May, the BND began requesting records centered on an investigation by former City Manager Scott Williams regarding the actions of then-operations director and city clerk Cheryl Brombolich. The city denied the request, stating the records were covered under personnel exemptions.

The News-Democrat filed suit in June in Madison County Circuit Court seeking the records. Attorney Esther Seitz, representing the BND and Illinois Press Association, argued that Freedom of Information Act exemptions only extend to personnel reviews, and that the documents assembled by Williams for City Council members in a disciplinary case were not exempt. She cited three other court decisions where that was the case.

Collinsville, represented by Corporate Counsel 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.

Brombolich, in a statement to the BND, commented on the city’s fight, stating it was “an attempt to protect public employees from slanderous campaigns against them by power-hungry bosses.”

“The release of the records about me, compiled by former City Manager Scott Williams, sets an unfortunate precedent. From now on, any public employee with a boss who has a vendetta against that person will be subject to public ridicule if copies of only carefully selected items from their personnel record are distributed to the media,” she wrote. Williams has declined comment.

Reporters Lexi Cortes and George Pawlaczyk first sought the documents from Williams, but the city declined to turn them over. Williams did, however, make the records available to other council members, and eventually, they were given to the BND.

Unsure of their veracity, however, and receiving no official confirmation, the News-Democrat did not use those records. That’s when it sued to have the city release them.

The city decided not to appeal and agreed to pay the newspaper’s legal fee and court costs, costing taxpayers $14,000.

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