City staff are proposing to spend $400,000 in 2017 for a STEAM learning center — and that’s just for the architectural service called “building analysis.” The city is already spending $75,000 on a consulting firm, and council has been spending time in closed sessions to discuss the purchase or lease of property. This is an expensive undertaking, ripe for abuse, and should be done only under the watchful eye of the public.
But obtaining information can be difficult, what with our city hall existing now in a perpetually locked-down position, and today I want to share an example. In April 2016, the Request for Proposal for the consultant referred to decisions made by the “stakeholder project team.” In early September, a posting on the city’s website about a survey taken of the community also mentions the “project team.” Do you get the idea that there’s some sort of committee at work? Me too. However, when we ask about the actual makeup of this “STEAM Team,” staff in the city manager’s office deny us.
Here’s how the attempts to get this information have played out so far.
September 21: DeKalb Citizen “A” emails Lauren Stott, an employee in the city manager’s office who is known to be involved in the STEAM project, to ask (for the second time, actually) who the members of the “STEAM Team” are. Stott puts her off, saying the members would be revealed in the consultants’ final report. Citizen “A” sends me the email string.
September 29: I submit a formal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the names and contact information of this “STEAM Team,” along with its agendas and meeting minutes to date. Stott’s response (she is also a FOIA officer) is that there’s no such project team, because council and mayor have not formally taken action to name individuals to it.
So now we’re up to two responses to citizens: “Wait for it,” and “Forget it.”
October 19: The Public Access Counselor of the Office of the Illinois Attorney General determines that the denial of the names of the project team members warrants further investigation, and accepts my request for review of the denial.
October 21: Citizen “B” receives a response from NIU on a FOIA request for emails that is unrelated to the inquiries of Resident “A” and myself, but which coincidentally contains the names of nine “STEAM Team” members as addressees in a July email from none other than Lauren Stott. Citizen “B” sends the email to me.
Email: “Greetings STEAM Learning Center Team.”
November 14: Having waited a couple of weeks for the city to respond to the PAC (Stott was supposed to respond within seven business days of the PAC’s notification of investigation) I send the email to the PAC, and ask that an updated team member list be sent to me.
Next: I’ll explore the Open Meetings Act implications of the decisions made by this secret group.
The STEAM group is, and has been described as, a team of stakeholders in the project. The team has also been described as having made decisions. We — the folks paying for it with our property taxes — are stakeholders, too, and we deserve to get in on the conversation. A subsidiary group of a government body that is discussing how to spend public money does not get to be anonymous and have private conversations. This is true even if the public body tries to dodge its responsibilities by ignoring formal procedure.