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Out Here: High fee deters public oversight

Published: Monday, Feb. 10, 2014 6:14 p.m. CST
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David Giuliani

Recently, we asked to see the autopsy report for Shane D. Cataline, 30, the Toledo, Ohio, man who was shot to death by a state conservation officer.

The Whiteside County state's attorney has ruled that the killing was justified, saying Cataline was "likely to cause imminent death or great bodily harm" to officers.

After we asked for the report, County Administrator Joel Horn, who handles public records requests, informed us that it would cost $50 for the 8-page document. That amounts to $6.25 a page. More than likely, the county could send the report to us via email – in other words, no copying of documents.

Under state law, a coroner's office is permitted to charge $50 for a report. And many counties list that charge on their websites, including Cook and Kane.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, government agencies are barred from charging for the first 50 pages of a document. Of course, that provision is riddled with exceptions in other state laws. For instance, one statute allows law enforcement agencies to charge up to $5 for an accident report. Most charge that amount.

In Lee County, we've received autopsy reports for free via email. Lee County Deputy Coroner Marty Meyer said her office charges $50 for a report, unless a person presents a request as being under the Freedom of Information Act. She said the coroner's law and Freedom of Information Act conflict.

Esther Seitz, an attorney for the Illinois Press Association, pointed to a section of the Freedom of Information Act that allows other statutes to set rates for hardcopies. But if an agency can feasibly provide a digital version, FOIA requires it to do so. A public body can charge the actual cost of a digital medium such as a CD, but it can't assess fees for the search or personnel costs associated with it, "except to the extent that the General Assembly expressly provides."

Whiteside County would charge $50 either way, Horn said in an email.

Such a charge has a deterrent effect; few are willing to pay it. It keeps people from watching over their public servants. 

In our case, the deterrent worked. We decided against spending the $50. 

An awkward number

Sterling's Abiding Word Church wants more Likes on its Facebook page, which helps spread its message.

The other day, the church's senior pastor, Scott Porter, wrote that Abiding Word had 666 likes on its page.

"That's awesome, but that kind of creeps me out. If you haven't already, please click on the church name (link) and like our page to put us over the top of that number," he wrote.

Porter's plea worked. By the next morning, the church's likes had rocketed to 734.

David Giuliani is a news editor for Sauk Valley Media. You can reach him at dgiuliani@saukvalley.com or 800-798-4085, ext. 525. Follow him on Twitter: @DGiuliani_SVM.

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