Still no answers in Fairview Heights FOIA refusal
Fairview Heights officials are still waiting for City Attorney Al Paulson to explain why he refused to honor a newspaper's request to view attorneys' bills related to the city's four-year battle with online travel companies.
The Madison County Record, which filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request June 8, asked the city to clarify which legal exemptions it claimed in denying the records request in order to appeal the refusal to Fairview Heights Mayor Gail Mitchell.
Under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, Fairview Heights is required to specifically cite legal exemptions it believes justifies refusal. As yet, there has been no word as to which parts of the law the city cites for exemption.
The Record requested the documents in order to determine how much the city and how much its lawyers took away from suits against 13 online travel companies such as Orbitz, Expedia, Priceline and Hotels.com.
According to settlement documents released under a prior FOIA, the city netted about $315,000 from the suits. Fairview Heights had begun the action as part of a failed class action, attempting to recover monies it argued were back hotel-motel room taxes.
The original class action was filed in 2004. After it failed to gain class certification in federal court, the city pursued individual claims. The last defendant, Orbitz, and its subsidiaries, settled in March 2009.
According to the city clerk's office, several calls have been placed to Paulson including messages left Wednesday and Thursday. Those calls have not been returned as of press time, according to the clerk's office.
The settlements state that the parties would bear their own costs. Mitchell has repeatedly told the Record in prior interviews that he did not believe the suits cost the city anything. However, it is still unclear what, if any, portion of the settlements went to Paulson, St. Louis-based attorney Richard Burke and the others who represented Fairview Heights in the actions.
It is also unclear how much Fairview Heights got from the legal battles. The largest settlement was for $105,000 to be paid by Expedia. The city has received a check from Expedia for roughly $57,000. According to the city treasurer's office, no other checks have been received.
In the June 12 FOIA denial letter, City Clerk Joseph Kassly wrote that "We have consulted our City Attorney and he stated that the entries on the bills are protected and could disclose other matters, i.e., personnel matters etc. and therefore we cannot honor your request for records."
Illinois FOIA law does include 36 exemptions to protect certain types of documents. These include personal privacy and some legal matters. However, the law does not exempt payment records made to a law firm when they contain no legal advice or any matter covered by attorney-client privilege.
Public bodies refusing FOIA requests are also mandated by the act to cite the definition of public records and the specific exemptions.