Government treats FOIA as a suggestion, not law

The Madison County Record Jul. 31, 2012, 4:17pm

To the Editor:

On September 26, 27, and 30, 2011, I filed three requests for public documents to the Village of Caseyville through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. I was simply wanting to see a contract to a public works project that was funded through a county grant. Little did I realize what I would have to personally endure for exercising my rights as a citizen. But as I often hear from veterans, "Freedom is not free."

The documents I requested were pretty mundane in nature, but asking a few harmless questions touched off a firestorm in the Village of Caseyville. The first surprise I received was having an obviously angry village trustee follow me out onto the parking lot and without my consent, start photographing me as I left. I was then unfairly labeled a recurrent requester, a designation I came nowhere close to deserving. Then came the assertion that my requests were unduly burdensome.

While it would have been easy to give up. I have to admit that the village trustees' attempt to intimidate me after filing my second document request, did stiffen my resolve. Instead of giving up, I made the decision to take my cause to my fellow citizens and began speaking to taxpayer watchdog organizations.

In February 2012 I received a favorable determination from the Illinois Attorney General. I thought the battle was over. It was not.

The village attorney had known something all along that I did not. The only way I would be able to force compliance was to sue the village in circuit court. So in essence, the only way a citizen has real access to public documents is if they have the money to sue. In my case, I was fortunate to have a lot of public support from other like minded citizens. Citizens who volunteered to pay my legal fees to pursue a municipality in what we all considered willful and intentional violations of the law.

To that end, I have come to the conclusion that the Freedom of Information laws are great "window dressing" for politicians, but the reality is that these laws are mere suggestions to public officials unless a citizen is of significant means and is able to pay to have the law enforced.

So comes the question: Does the average citizen really have access to public documents? My answer is no. My now, very educated opinion is that until criminal provisions are put into place, government entities will continue to treat The Freedom of Information Act like a "suggestion" instead of a right to every citizen.

Brad VanHoose

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