Council Lacked Vote to Change City FOIA Law

A resolution to amend the City’s FOIA process will require a second vote before it can be lawfully enacted. Mayor Hagerty brought the proposal before the Council improperly as a Special Item of Business. Under City Council Rules, a matter may only be made a special item upon a majority vote of Council.

18.11 Any matter before the Council may be made a special order of business for any future time by action of the Council. A special order of business refers to Council consideration of a docket item which will be considered at a specified date previously agreed upon by a majority vote of the Council.

Rules and Organization of the City Council of the City of Evanston

The proposal largely transfers FOIA authority from the independent office of the City Clerk to attorneys representing the City, and who face restrictions in disclosing information adverse to the City’s corporate authorities and top management. Robert’s Rules of Order requires previous designation for special orders, although it requires a two-thirds affirmative vote.

Twenty residents spoke out against the resolution at Tuesday night’s meeting, with none speaking in its favor. As of Wednesday morning, 426 residents also signed a petition opposing the change.

Ald. Fleming, one of the three dissenting council members (also Alds. Simmons and Rainey), said the City “has gotten us to the place where people don’t necessarily trust us, and I think we need to be honest about that.” She said that residents see the Clerk’s office as a place of accountability, and stated her concern about what changing that system would say to citizens. Fleming also suggested the recommendation may be premature, given the pending FOIA lawsuit against the City, and recommended Council wait to hear the verdict before deciding the issue.

Alds. Braithwaite and Wilson incorrectly stated the resolution would not diminish the Clerk’s FOIA authority or responsibility. Ald. Wilson said he was concerned that when Clerk Reid was out of the office, there would be no one to handle FOIA requests. The Mayor and Clerk Reid pointed out that Ill. FOIA law allows the Clerk to designate other officers to respond to requests, the current FOIA designee being Deputy Clerk Eduardo Gomez.

Reid, seconded by Ald. Simmons, requested someone supporting the resolution demonstrate with facts and figures how the Clerk’s office was falling behind in compliance, and how this change would remedy that issue. Corporation Counsel Michelle Masoncup stated 19 requests were overdue because the Clerk refused to close them, and that another 67 were pending as requestors hadn’t yet narrowed their requests. Reid pointed out that none of those requests were capacity issues, that the 19 requests overdue were because the City wasn’t complying with release of information laws; and that the pending requests cited were because the requestor didn’t know how, or refused to narrow the request. FOIA law doesn’t specify a course of action in this case.

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