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Out Here: When Morrison kept public records secret

In her Opinion page column Wednesday, Morrison mayoral candidate Sarah Thorndike discussed the importance of communicating with the public.

“Communication, or the lack thereof, lies at the heart of much of the bad rep now ‘enjoyed’ by Morrison’s city government. Communication is one of the things I do best,” the city alderwoman wrote. “Often, legal liabilities preclude commenting on certain aspects, but that should be stated upfront, with information released as soon as practically possible.”

In January 2011, she had stood with all other members of the City Council in keeping under wraps the city’s settlement with General Electric over industrial pollution caused by the company’s former manufacturing operation in town. Aldermen said at the time that they were following the advice of their then-attorney, Lester Weinstine.

But the council’s secrecy violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

“All settlement agreements entered into by or on behalf of a public body are public records subject to inspection and copying by the public, provided that information exempt from disclosure under Section 7 of this Act may be redacted,” the law states.

In other words, the city had no choice – legally – but to release the settlement agreement.

We sent a request for that settlement in December 2010 and never got a response from the city. So we started calling council members.

One by one, they told us they could not tell us anything. When asked whether the public should be in the loop on something that could involve their health, those aldermen deferred to their lawyer – the one who wouldn’t answer our calls. When we asked them about the provision in the Freedom of Information Act, they told us to speak with their attorney.

One of those council members was Thorndike.

Three other aldermen whose terms expire this year are Guy Hayenga, Pat Zuidema and David Rose. All three, who had no objections to the secrecy, decided not to seek re-election. Alderwoman Marti Wood, another mayoral candidate, didn’t join the council until after the dispute over the GE settlement.

In a Jan. 5, 2011, interview, Thorndike told us that she “would like to have the people know [about the settlement], but the attorneys are telling us not to.”

She said the agreement had a nondisclosure clause, adding that she “reluctantly” understood the need for confidentiality sometimes.

We took the matter to the Illinois attorney general, who handles appeals in public records disputes. In late January, the attorney general decided to investigate.

On Valentine’s Day 2011, an assistant attorney general placed calls to the city clerk and the city’s attorney. Later that day, the city released the documents.

Attorney Weinstine said before a council meeting that day that the city had been “legally forced” to produce the agreement.

The pact required that General Electric submit a detailed work plan for the cleanup of the pollution, among other things. That work was to include groundwater and soil testing.

The agreement also stated that General Electric was to pay the city $650,000 – information that the city had already revealed (it’s hard to hide that kind of money).

To be sure, the agreement did include a standard confidentiality clause. While such secrecy language can prevent disclosure of settlement terms among private litigants, it does not apply to public bodies in Illinois. In fact, the Morrison-GE settlement even stated that the parties recognized that the city was subject to requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

Asked Wednesday about the city’s handling of the public records request, Thorndike said the City Council had to follow its attorney’s advice.

“We have a city attorney for a reason,” she said.

To be fair to Thorndike, her reaction is not unusual among people in government offices. Last year, when then-Lee County State’s Attorney Henry Dixon kept transcripts from wind farm hearings secret, not one of the 28 Lee County Board members publicly questioned that decision, despite residents’ objections.

We shouldn’t expect our elected representatives to be legal scholars. Mistakes are understandable.

But my hope is that our leaders’ first instinct is open government. And sometimes that requires questioning the advice of their attorneys.

David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525. 

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