Kolker denies fees and penalties sought by ESL activist in FOIA suit

By Ann Maher | Aug 26, 2014

St. Clair County Associate Judge Christopher Kolker has denied fees and penalties sought by an East St. Louis civic activist in a Freedom of Information Act-related lawsuit he brought against the city last year.

Kolker had previously dismissed a portion of the suit that Matt Hawkins brought seeking ouster of several East St. Louis officials for their alleged failure to turn over documents concerning a Community Block Development Grant.

In June, Kolker adopted a defense argument that the power to remove public officials is the domain of law enforcement, not private citizens.

He remarked that courts would be overwhelmed if private citizens were allowed to bring removal actions against officials with whom they disagreed.

Regarding Hawkins' claim that city officials violated the FOIA, Kolker wrote on Aug. 8 that Hawkins is not entitled to fees.

"Plaintiff first requests fees, which he refers to as costs, for his time spent on this matter," Kolker wrote. "Plaintiff is not an attorney. The FOIA statute does not allow for such fees. Because such fees are not allowed by the statute, they are denied."

Kolker also denied penalties sought by Hawkins for the City's failure to timely comply with his FOIA request for meeting minutes from the Tax Increment Finance Commission and Joint Review Board.

The City had answered that the minutes Hawkins sought were not in its possession.

"The FOIA statute allows the Court to grant penalites 'if the court determines that a public body willfully and intentionally failed to comply with this Act, or otherwise acted in bad faith,'" Kolker wrote. " At the instant hearing no evidence was presented and no testimony was elicited. There was not any evidence that the factors for penalties were met."

Kolker further wrote that the City, represented by Michael Wagner of Clayborne, Sabo and Wagner in Belleville, pointed out that "Plaintiff's amended complaint contained frivolous pleadings, which the Court had previously admonished Plaintiff about, but was still re-filed.

"Those include arguments to remove elected officials and damages for high crime in East St. Louis. Defendants have had to spend significant time and resources responding to all of these issues. Further, Defendant points out the documents requested are not in Defendants' possession."

The basis for Hawkins' suit stemmed from his criticism of nearly $2.5 million in grant funds to renovate and/or build 16 housing units involving 12 buildings. He has said these expenditures of tax payer dollars in an impoverished community like East St. Louis have been under the guise of “invisible development that has had no measurable positive impact on Plaintiff’s community.”

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