Kankakee Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong says she wants the city government to be “transparent” with its residents.
That’s a laudable goal, but it conflicts with another of her principles: Follow city lawyers’ advice on whether to release public records.
Unfortunately, the city’s law firm, Odelson & Sterk, has a poor batting average with its response to our requests under the Freedom of Information Act.
Here are some examples:
Sales tax settlements
This week, the city rejected our request to see settlements in a sales tax controversy with other government bodies.
The City Council approved the pacts more than a week ago. State law is clear on this: All settlements entered into by public bodies are open record. Period. But the city said it needs the other government bodies to approve the agreements before it discloses them.
It cited the exemption under state law that allows “preliminary notes” to be kept secret. There’s nothing preliminary about these agreements; they’re final.
Despite our repeated requests throughout the last month, the city has refused to disclose the grievance filed by Kankakee police Officer Logan Andersen.
He was disciplined in a 2017 incident, and we want to see a record showing his side of the issue.
The city already has released the record of its disciplinary action against Andersen. The matter is closed, so the grievance is public record.
We filed an appeal last week with the Illinois Attorney General.
Last fall, we requested the correspondence between the city and its trash hauler, Republic Services, regarding a dispute about collection of recyclables. The city refused our request, citing the exception under law that allows secrecy for documents created for criminal, civil or administrative proceedings.
There was no such proceeding because the city and company had already resolved their dispute.
So, we filed an appeal of the denial with the attorney general.
Before the attorney general had a chance to respond, the city divulged the correspondence.
In November, we sought the correspondence between the city and Richard Simms, the former city utilities superintendent who now is under federal investigation.
The city, again, denied the newspaper, citing two exceptions — the secrecy of attorney-client communications and preliminary notes.
We weren’t seeking correspondence between the attorney and client; we wanted the city’s communications with an outside vendor. And there was nothing preliminary about it.
They were official communications to an adversary who charged the city hundreds of thousands of dollars for software that reportedly does not work.
In contrast, the regional sewer treatment agency, Kankakee Regional Metropolitan Agency, or KRMA, immediately provided its correspondence with Simms, who had served as its executive director and was facing a similar situation with his software.
The city provided the requested documents soon after we appealed to the attorney general.
The city denied our request for grand jury subpoenas it received from the feds investigating Richard Simms.
It cited the secrecy of grand jury materials. However, that secrecy applies to law enforcement agencies involved in the proceedings, not public bodies receiving the subpoenas.
Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich also tried to keep secret federal subpoenas involving his corruption. But state courts ruled they were open records.
After we presented that argument, the city relented. (In fairness, KRMA also denied us at first.)
If this is the kind of resistance a newspaper receives, I can only imagine what other residents face when they try to get public records from the city. As journalists, we are trained how to navigate the secrecy of government and fight when necessary to get public records. And, we have the time to do so. Most people do not.
The city’s pattern of unnecessary secrecy is troublesome. Throughout time, I’ve had my share of battles regarding public records, but Kankakee stands out as particularly resistant.