Politics are for people with thick skin.
So says a judge ruling against the wife of Caseyville Township trustee Richard Donovan who sought to keep civic activist Brad Van Hoose from attending public meetings she attends through an order of protection.
Toward the end of a long hearing Wednesday morning, St. Clair County Associate Judge Patricia Kievlan said that “politics are rough.”
“If you’re going to be in politics you’d better get thick skin,” she said. “Somebody is going to say something you don’t like.”
In her complaint, Deborah Donovan argued that she was verbally attacked at a Dec. 19 board meeting in an exchange that ensued after VanHoose asked Richard Donovan why his vehicle was parked in a handicapped space.
She said that Van Hoose forced her to tell the board and the rest of the public that she had a disability with her legs. Donovan filed a “Stalking No Contact” order against Van Hoose Dec. 20.
In her complaint - which also sought to prevent Van Hoose from being within 500 feet of her residence and from being at the Caseyville VFW while she is there – Donovan stated that Van Hoose, at the meeting, “walked toward me pointing his finger at me and said I looked fine to him and again questioned my disability in front of the entire township board and the rest of the public.
“He upset me so much by verbally attacking me.”
During testimony, she said, "He scares me. He is a loose cannon. He goes after and picks on people."
Van Hoose said his purpose in addressing the board was to question the Township’s handling of his Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. He said his FOIA request was related to a $60,000 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuit settlement the Township had entered into.
Van Hoose said he questioned why Trustee Donovan’s vehicle was in a handicapped space without the appropriate license plate.
“As public board members it sets a bad example,” he said. “You set policies and rules for others and I don’t think you follow them.”
Donovan showed the court that she possesses a portable, permanent disability placard valid through 2018.
Kievlan, who listened to an audio recording of a portion of the Dec. 19 meeting and the testimony of four plaintiff witnesses, concluded that she didn’t hear Van Hoose verbally attack Deborah Donovan.
“I am a little bit jaded,” she said. “I hear these things all day long. I didn’t hear any of that here.”
Kievlan said that people “saying things you don’t like is not against the law. That doesn’t rise to the level of threat.”
She also concluded that in response to Van Hoose's question on the vehicle parked in the handicapped space, Donovan "blurted out, 'That's mine, I have a handicap.'"
Several times throughout the hearing Kievlan cautioned Van Hoose to keep things “relevant.”
“We’re not here to hear disputes with Caseyville Township,” she said. “This is not a platform to air differences in politics.”
Kievlan said that the deciding factor in her decision was the testimony of Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Steinhauer who provided security at the Dec. 19 meeting.
Steinhauer said he did not believe Van Hoose posed a threat to Donovan.
“He is an unbiased person,” Kievlan said. “This is someone who is there to protect both sides.”
Speaking directly to Donovan, Kievlan said, “Your fear – that’s inside of you. I don’t think you have proven your case.”
She said that Van Hoose’s comments were “unfortunate” but they were not “abusive or harassing.”
“He has a right to express his opinions,” she said.
To Van Hoose, Kievlan recalled her mother’s admonishment: “Contrary to popular belief, people can hear you better when not yelling at them.”
“I appreciate anybody out there in politics,” she said. “People can hear you better when you’re not yelling.”
After the hearing, Donovan reacted by saying, "I feel it was wrong he attacked me."
Van Hoose said in a statement that Donovan was out of order when she engaged him in conversation at the Dec. 19 meeting.
"She was defensive and combative after I made mention of a vehicle owned by herself and her husband, Township Trustee Richard Donovan parked in a handicapped parking spot during a public meeting," he said.
Freedom of Information
While Van Hoose may be perceived as an antagonist in the politically charged village of Caseyville, he says his cause is grounded in “open and honest government.”
His pursuit of expenditure and communications records from the Village, Township and other public bodies has resulted in setbacks for him personally, but also has resulted in “victories for the public,” he said.
The biggest loss was the interruption of his education at Southwestern Illinois College (SWIC) in 2012, he said.
Van Hoose, who was studying to become a teacher, said he was wrongfully arrested by school public safety officers on bogus disorderly conduct charges. But between the time it took SWIC to file charges with prosecutors – 70 days – and the time it took the St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s Office to drop them, he said restrictions made it too difficult to continue there.
Victories have come in the form of winning a lawsuit he filed against the Village seeking enforcement of his records’ request. He “won” injunctive relief, but the Village also paid him $3,000 plus his filing costs.
The election of a new administration in the April election also was good for Caseyville, he said. Former mayor George Chance was voted out, and new mayor Leonard Black took office.
Van Hoose said he has filed somewhere between 25 and 30 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in the past two years against the Village, Township, SWIC and the Illinois State Police – related to a misconduct investigation he sought after his SWIC arrest.
“It’s about the only way you can get records,” he said.
FOIA and Open Meetings Act (OMA) laws are “not perfect,” but they are the best tools available for holding government and politicians accountable, he said.
He said he has learned the “tricks” of public entities that “split hairs” in resisting compliance.
“Sometimes you’re too broad, or you’re too specific,” he said.
He also has found that when public bodies push back or avoid a request, “you know you’re probably on the right track.”
“The smart ones go ahead and file a 15-day extension (of time to respond),” he said.
As a citizen expert, Van Hoose has created a “curriculum” on how to obtain public information through FOIA, as well as how to enforce the OMA. His class also discusses Roberts Rules of Order and purchasing codes. He said one meeting was held in the fall and more will be held this year.