Column

Styf: It's time for an open and honest government

Jon Styf
Jon Styf

Public records and a transparent government are essential elements of how our state and country operate.

The general rule of thumb is that the work, documents and communications our governmental entities produce on our behalf should be subject to public review and scrutiny. There are small, specific carve-outs of those laws, but most things should remain public.

Although there is about an infinite number of public records available – more than anyone could ever request or sift through – an important part of our jobs is to bring the essential public records to light for those who are interested: our subscribers.

The problem comes when public entities try to block the release of those records. It happens a lot, and many times the public entity is overstepping the law to try to block their release.

We've encountered that plenty lately, such as in the case of Algonquin's Anthony Prate, who recently was charged with murder in Schaumburg.

Back in 2011, Prate was the driver in a crash where his previous wife, Bridget Prate, died. Anthony Prate drove his car across the center line, crashed into another vehicle, and then his vehicle hit a tree and a fence, according to our story then.

A lot of questions were left unanswered. Anthony Prate was charged with a simple moving violation, and the case was closed.

After the new charges, we reached out to Lake in the Hills police and asked for the 2011 police report from the closed case. They wouldn't release the documents to the public. So we filed a public records request. And, after taking the full amount of time allowed by law to respond, they again decided not to release the records, stating that the case has been reopened because of the new charges.

The problem is that their interpretation is wrong, and it's important to remember that their denial is telling the public that they don't deserve to review those documents.

It's a strong claim.

Although certain specifics can be redacted, the law doesn't allow for a full police report to be concealed on a moving violation from 2011, even if the case is being reviewed again now. The public absolutely has the right to review the case information from 2011 to see whether police and the state's attorney's office did things correctly.

It's not dissimilar to the McHenry Home Depot pedestrian death, where McHenry police tried to block the release of any documents related to the report until the Illinois attorney general's public access counselor got involved.

That likely will be the same result here. The police will try to block the release of the documents until the law is reviewed, and it's clear that the records are public, which sometimes is simply a delay tactic from police.

Another recent example of a blocked public record came from Illinois' Department of Public Health, which recently sent out a news release about a fifth vaping-related death in the state.

The problem: Where did it happen?

It's an incredibly important fact for the public to know where it happened because the location of these five deaths likely are related to where the fatal product was acquired, thus informing the public more on the specifics of where the problem is taking place.

The department publishes a map of where vaping-related illnesses have been reported, and this area is prime injury territory.

McHenry County has had seven to 10 reported cases, and so has DeKalb County. Meanwhile, Lake, Kane, DuPage, Will and Cook counties each have had more than 10 this year.

It seemed like a simple question to ask where the deaths took place, but apparently it wasn't.

"In order to protect the identity and respect the privacy of affected individuals, additional information is not being provided," department communications person Melaney Arnold wrote to me. "... Location of an unfortunate death does not change what actions the public should take."

I disagree completely, and I told Arnold the same – that I felt the department's approach was in fact endangering the public by not informing it.

So I issued a Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to her news release.

After asking for an extension, the department this week wrote back that "The department is unable to identify any records responsive to your request."

The response seems disingenuous, and the public should be aware of how far the government is apparently willing to go to avoid revealing where people are dying from vaping.

But why?

Sometimes, the lack of transparency from public entities has no explanation.

Such as in the case of a recent complaint against several McHenry County Board members related to public officials not filing required statements of economic interest this year.

We were told about the complaint and asked the county for it. But the county wouldn't release it. So we had to get the complaint from the complainant himself.

As it turns out, there was a whole spreadsheet of officials who didn't fill out the documents because they never were asked to file them, as the statute requires.

On May 1, when McHenry County Clerk Joe Tirio was required by statute to notify all who had not filed the "blue form" yet, he didn't.

Last week, Tirio said that was because he met with a group in February that decided it wouldn't file the notice this year because of a desire to repeal the statute.

McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally said his office agreed.

But when asked about it in April by County Board Chairman Jack Franks, Tirio didn't divulge the February decision. Instead, he said he hadn't been provided a list of who should file. Time went by, and until a complaint was filed about the lack of forms, nothing was done.

"I think that this is the insider dealing that I am trying to stamp out," Franks said. " ... This is a couple of guys making a decision out in darkness and not to follow the law."

It makes you wonder what other laws aren't being followed.

Franks' main complaint is the lack of oversight on the process from his political opponents.

The political ties between everyone from the clerk to the state's attorney, sheriff, auditor, coroner, regional superintendent of schools and elsewhere are high, Franks has made clear. So who's to monitor them if they're politically tied and regularly attending each others' fundraisers as the 2020 elections approach?

"We are no longer a small community where everyone knows each other," Franks said. "We need an inspector general. ... There is never going to be accountability when friends are monitoring friends."

I recently sent Algonquin Township Highway Commissioner Andrew Gasser a FOIA request for an arbitration ruling against him, which included an order to rehire fired road district employee Daniel Morrison.

Gasser did not respond within the five-day window required by law, so I reminded him.

The next day, I received the response. It's the second time this year Gasser has been late in responding to a FOIA request I sent him.

For being late and not following the law, there was no repercussion.

For Illinois to start taking the public records law more seriously, that needs to change. And I shouldn't have to sue the public entity for that to happen. Adding penalties to violations of FOIA and the Open Meetings Act needs to happen, and it needs to happen now.

• Northwest Herald Editor Jon Styf can be reached at jstyf@shawmedia.com or 815-526-4630.

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