Column

From the Editor: Public records provide important context

Jon Styf
Jon Styf

Public records are an essential part of what we shine a light on as a local newspaper, website and advocate.

I’ve seen plenty of public entities attempt to keep public records hidden from public view but the past few weeks in McHenry County have been exceptional for that.

Early last week, reporter Katie Smith got responses from District 155 on several separate requests related to the resignation of former teacher and coach Jay Mueller.

There are rules within the Freedom of Information Act that allow public entities to take more time to collect and redact particularly large requests. Often, however, that five-day extension is abused.

In this case, one of the requests asked simply for a letter of resignation, something that typically is one page. It’s a clear public record and either it exists or it doesn’t, pretty simple. Not for District 155.

District 155 chose to claim it needed a five-day extension for that letter and used two reasons: One, it needed more time to redact the letter and two, the request was “unduly burdensome” for district staff.

It’s absurd and another in a series of actions from the district regarding its communication with the public. When asked for further comment regarding the resignation after it appeared on a meeting agenda, District 155 Director of Communications Shannon Podzimek wrote: “As with all personnel matters on the August 20 board agenda, board action is required. We have no further comment.”

We don’t know what happened that led to Mueller’s resignation. We know that Crystal Lake Police investigated an accusation of an inappropriate relationship with a student and didn’t file charges. Beyond that, we’re looking to inform the public what happened.

District 155 wasn’t the only entity that denied recent requests, however.

McHenry Police denied a request for a police report related to the March 31 crash in front of McHenry’s Home Depot when Johnsburg’s William Dammeyer was struck by a truck and later died.

McHenry Police previously said the investigation was closed and no further charges would be coming against 19-year-old driver Christian J. Zientko of McHenry. But it would not release the police report, claiming that it would interfere with the court proceedings on the moving violations against Zientko, set for October.

Stipulations such as the court case provision are narrowly meant to prevent interfering with a case but are definitely not intended to instead protect police departments from scrutiny of its work and charges in a case where the result was death. In this case, it will be interesting to see if McHenry Police’s angle for the denial was to protect itself instead of protecting the case in a traffic court violation.

Accidents happen, for sure, but it’s hard to imagine an accident like that could occur, where a man died, and the result is a petty offense of disregarding a stop sign.

As we saw this week in a far different crash from earlier this year in Wauconda, reckless homicide can be charged in a vehicular death.

I have appealed the FOIA denial with the state Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor and, on Thursday, the PAC sent a letter saying that the matter deserves further inquiry.

The same happened with reporter Katie Smith following a request for documents that Illinois’ Department of Children and Family Services wrongly denied access to.

In this case, she asked DCFS for communications related to the home on Dole Avenue where AJ Freund was killed.

DCFS didn’t give us those communications, which include text messages on DCFS investigator Carlos Acosta’s phone, and now it claims it can’t get those messages because the phones of “Acosta and Andy Polovin have been impounded as part of a child death investigation by the DCFS Office of the Inspector General.”

The phones weren’t impounded until nearly two months after the request, and by wrongly denying the request, now DCFS is claiming it can’t fulfill its end and provide public documents to the public.

It would be great if these cases were uncommon. But they’re really not. As long as we cover local news, local public entities will also be working to keep things it doesn’t want the public to see private.

That’s why it remains essential for you to subscribe to the Northwest Herald and support that investigative work that provides you with information on how the governmental entities are spending the money that you gave them.

The fact that so many spend so much of your money on “communications” staff that instead work to block communications is amazing.

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

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