State steps in after Carlinville denies FOIA request
The Illinois Attorney General's office has initiated an investigation into an alleged violation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by the City of Carlinville after the Edgar County Watchdogs (ECW) filed a complaint.
The ECW said that its request was deemed "commercial" by a law firm hired by the City of Carlinville in February at a cost of $481.25 in legal fees. The ECW said the city told it the cost of procuring the requested materials was approximately $200.
ECW co-founder John Kraft submitted his FOIA request on Jan. 16, which by law required a reply by Jan. 21. Daniel Schuering of Schuering Law sent Kraft a letter on Feb. 14 saying the city “is treating the FOIA Request as a request for a 'commercial purpose.'" It also said Kraft would have to pay the $200 in advance and the city would require 35 days for a response.
Kraft had asked for copies of public records regarding a petition objection filed by local resident Sherry Brianza against incumbent Mayor Deanna Demuzio. The mayor was accused of campaigning for petition signatures on city property during business hours and submitting those signatures in her re-election package.
Brianza also alleged that nine signatures were from nonresidents, unregistered voters or people who had signed more than one mayoral petition. She also said 74 names did not match voter registration rolls. As it turned out, most of the matching problems were due to middle initials being used or omitted on the petition versus the voter rolls.
Despite Brianza's relationship with mayoral candidate George Cerar, she told The Telegraph that she had filed the objections on principle.
“I lived in Chicago and that’s where I got my election judge training," Brianza said. "I mean, I went to the class for election judges, poll watching and everything.”
After Carlinville's Municipal Election Officer Board determined that Demuzio did not campaign while on the job and invalidated only seven of the signatures on her petition, Brianza filed a challenge in court that would have prevented Demuzio from running for re-election. Judge Christopher Perrin dismissed the case in late January.
The ECW had requested the relevant documents before Judge Perrin dismissed the case. When Kraft received the law firm's response to his FOIA request, he responded by citing a section of the law regarding his request. He argued that the city and law firm had no basis for classifying his request as commercial and, because the response was past the five-day deadline, the fees must be waived.
"The city of Carlinville has violated the 5-day mandatory response time for this request [5 ILCS140/3(d)], and it is my belief that you are attempting to claim 'commercial request' to somehow try and avoid that violation,” Kraft responded in writing. “It will not work."
In his complaint to the state, Kraft listed the violations he believed had occurred.
"Carlinville is attempting to claim my request is a commercial request when it was clearly not one, and I even stated so in the FOIA request," Kraft wrote. "This claim comes more than 3 weeks after failing to comply within the original 5-day response time as required under FOIA. It was not a commercial request and cannot be labeled as a commercial request."
The attorney general’s office sent Schuering an email on February 22, notifying the law firm that "further action is warranted." It requested a detailed response explaining the basis for the city's contention that Kraft's FOIA request was commercial.