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MCC defies AG’s orders on releasing information

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CRYSTAL LAKE – McHenry County College officials have pledged to usher in a new era of transparency, but continue to withhold information related to the ouster of the college’s former president.

Despite orders from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, college officials still are refusing to release documents detailing Walt Packard’s performance evaluations requested by the Northwest Herald under the Freedom of Information Act.

After initially claiming Packard left his post as president in early 2009 to care for his sick wife, college leaders later said the former president was forced to step down in the middle of a three-year contract. Since then, Packard has collected more than $250,000 in salary and benefits.

MCC “must disclose the documents,” Public Access Counselor Cara Smith wrote in a letter to the college earlier this month. The public access counselor is an employee of the Attorney General’s Office.

“The public has a legitimate interest in knowing his strengths and weaknesses as an administrator,” she wrote. “With the exception of certain narrow circumstances, public employees do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to their public duties.”

A few days later, college officials again denied the request. In a seven-page letter, MCC administrator Pat Stejskal wrote that the documents were exempt from disclosure, despite the opinion of the Attorney General’s Office. The letter cited personal privacy and the potential passage of state legislation that would make performance evaluations exempt.

Gov. Pat Quinn changed legislation passed this year that would have exempted performance evaluations for all public employees. Under Quinn’s amendatory veto, the exemption applies only to law enforcement personnel. Lawmakers could override his veto in November.

The Northwest Herald has asked the Public Access Counselor to review the college’s decision.

MCC President Vicky Smith stood behind the move to shield the evaluations.

“The college is really not trying to grasp at legal technicality ...,” she said. “But rather our response is focusing on a greater principle that performance evaluations on all employees should be maintained confidential for the good of the employee, the college and ultimately the community.”

Privacy is more important than the public’s right to know in this instance, said Mary Miller, chairwoman of MCC’s Board of Trustees.

“Transparency is extremely important, but if it infringes on the privacy rights of individuals, I have a problem with that,” she said.

The PAC’s opinion that the documents should be released carries weight, said Don Craven, a media law attorney in Springfield.

“I suppose there is nothing that says they have to follow the opinion of the chief law enforcement officer in the state of Illinois, but I don’t know how to build the right amount of sarcasm into that for a print publication,” he said.

Craven, who is general counsel to the Illinois Press Association, also cast doubt on the privacy exemption.

“Why would they think this is private if it is about the public duties of the leader of a public institution paid with public funds?” he said.

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