Abusing the System of Open Government
Township and municipal officials statewide are trying to comply with Illinois’ law on providing past public records to a Chicagoland Republican with connections to Tea Party groups while coping with a lack of staff or the type of material requested.
In a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, Adam Andrjewski wants to see all expenditure records going back to 2008. He said, “We sent 7,000 Freedom of Information Act requests to every unit of government in the state. We want six years of line-by-line checkbook spending.”
He said his web site, openthebooks.com, has years of salary and pension details, adding, “The cataloging is going to take a while, but my team already has received 4,000 productions, about 200 million lines of information.”
Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides citizens the right to access public documents and records. Its premise is that people have the right to know what government is doing. Governments must respond to an FOIA request within five business days after receiving the request, and they must provide at no charge the first 50 pages of black and white, letter or legal-sized photocopies. Additional pages can cost no more than 15 cents a page; for color copies or abnormal-size copies, public bodies can charge requestors their actual costs.
Steve Garnett, Supervisor of Jubilee Township in Peoria County, said, “I do maintain a spreadsheet which lists all of our expenditures, but not in the form they requested. We do not maintain as much detail as they requested. Some of the requests are clearly with the intent of being burdensome.
Andrzejewski describes his organization, For the Good of Illinois, as a watchdog group, and an allied outfit, American Transparency, as a non-partisan charity. But in 2010 he was a Republican candidate for governor endorsed by Rush Limbaugh, finishing fifth. He isn’t seeking political office this year, he’s noted.
Andrzejewski also is an occasional speaker at Chicagoland Tea Party events who reportedly supports the death penalty and “Right to Work” laws prohibiting unions from collecting dues from workers they represent, and opposes environmental regulations, stem-cell research, abortion and gay rights. Since 2010 he’s supported several Republicans in statewide races, but no Democrats. However, in April he told Hinsdale magazine that the Open the Books project won’t play party favorites, commenting, “Whether they have ‘R’s’ or ‘D’s’ behind their names doesn’t matter to us. If you are coddling taxpayer abuse, waste, corruption, we come after you.”
His For the Good of Illinois web site recently has criticized various Democrats and also Hinsdale Republican Congressman Peter Roskam, who was opposed by Tea Party activists in an unsuccessful June bid to be House Whip after the resignation of Republican Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia.
Andrzejewski said, “The goal is to post online every dime taxed and spent by every unit of government. The information could be used by competitive candidates, watchdogs, different units of government to see what others are doing, vendors to see how they might be more competitive – any and all people.”
In Springfield, the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access hotline, which helps public bodies and FOI requestors alike, said they’re aware of the massive request. One staffer said that local officials are trying to find a way to deal with it because it can be burdensome.
Meanwhile, Gov. Quinn in June vetoed a measure that would’ve limited everyday citizens’ ability to file FOI requests, charging more for requesting large documents or for multiple requests in a short period of time.
Quinn said, “House Bill 3796 is a bill that reduces government transparency by limiting the ability of citizens to seek public records. The bill as proposed would slow down the process for individuals who lack electronic means to request or obtain information.”
Garnett, in rural Peoria, expressed frustration at meeting demands with inadequate resources, saying, “We have no choice but to comply even though we have no staff. As a result, the burden usually falls on me with the assistance of the attorney. Her time is, of course, an expense. I figure my salary is barely minimum wage even without the FOIA, so massive FOIA requests are a definite burden and a big concern. If it becomes too burdensome I might have to resign.”
Contact Bill at Bill.Knight@hotmail.com; his twice-weekly columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.