FOIA Request Rejection & Appeal

Kay’s post about Governor Quinn’s signing the new, improved FOIA legislation is great news, but comes too late to help with this current and ongoing situation.

Let’s start with a recap of events. I have been trying to obtain, via the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), ReNew:DeKalb meeting minutes. Re:New, as a private organization, does not have to respond under FOIA directly; however, a provision of its contract with the City of DeKalb requires it to submit certain documents to the city. Here is the provision of the Re:New contract (p. 249) upon which I have based my requests:

SUBMISSION OF ANNUAL BUDGET, AUDITOR’S REPORT & MEETING MINUTES: ReNew DeKalb shall annually submit a copy of their approved annual budget and Auditor’s Report and copies of any board meeting minutes of any meeting where the receipt or use of City funding is discussed or acted upon within thirty (30) days of the approval of such documents.

“City funding” is not specific to Re:New’s annual allocation. It includes the use of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) monies, too. The Egyptian Theatre has the same provision in its contract with DeKalb (p. 242) and its allocation is TIF funding (p. 237). Re:New is all about TIF, from the Architectural Improvement Program (AIP) to special projects like the skating rink. In fact, it would be surprising to find out that there are any Re:New meetings whatsoever that don’t discuss some aspect of the use of city funding. BTW, this has Open Meetings Act implications, too, but that’s a separate complaint.

Mind you, it was a year ago this month when I first approached Re:New about obtaining its annual budgets. I was promised them but then put off and put off. Today it’s a she said–she said story but I want to point out an irony: If Re:New — champion of transparency that it claims to be — had just provided the documents informally requested of it, I might never have gone poring through contracts nor made the discovery of the meeting minutes provision.

And I am — we are — entitled to these minutes, according to a letter from the Attorney General’s Office (see 2/19 entry). The city obtains the minutes from Re:New, and the citizens obtain the minutes from the city using FOIA. It’s as simple as that, but I still have not succeeded in getting the minutes.

The election campaign and aftermath hindered the pursuit for a time, but the July 13, 2009 meeting included a vote on a new contract and allocation for Re:New, and I argued that the city council should not approve them because Re:New clearly has breached its contracts (p. 43). When Council approved the FY2010 allocation over the objection, I assumed the city would begin enforcing the contract and I began the FOIA process afresh, as I promised the city manager in an e-mail.

My latest request was rejected, according to an August 5 letter:

The ReNew DeKalb FY08 and FY09 Budgets and minutes of the ReNew DeKalb meetings at which those budgets were approved were provided to you in your FOIA request of January this year. Those documents are again available for your review. The City is not in possession of any other meeting minutes from Renew DeKalb for the time period requested. The City Attorney does not believe that the City’s annual funding agreement with ReNew DeKalb requires the submission of any documentation other than what has been previously supplied to you. Any advisory recommendations which ReNew DeKalb may make are made part of City Council agenda back-up when consideration of funding a particular project is before the City Council.

Since it has already been established as explained earlier in this post, that citizens are entitled to more minutes, only three valid bases for denial remain:

  • The request is too vague to be understood
  • The city is claiming a specific exemption under the Act
  • The documents do not exist
  • Since the FOIA request was not rejected on the basis of any of the above, I have submitted a letter of appeal. A denial would exhaust the administrative remedies. Only a legal course of action is left after that.