Mayor Smith runs from Freedom of Information right smack into the First Amendment

I went to a special city council meeting last night, where I noted two odd occurrences.

First off, Aaron Stevens attended. Stevens is DeKalb’s Freedom of Information Act officer, but there was nothing on the agenda about FOIA.

The second weird thing was the attentiveness of council members. Gone were the usual tablet-tapping movements and studied indifference as I shared my views during the citizen comment portion of the evening. They were rather intent, if you get what I mean. Expectant, even.

Afterward I was talking in the city hall parking lot with a neighbor who said I should catch the video of Monday’s regular council meeting (August 28) because the mayor called out some of us who have been critical of the FOIA Center and the way it was and is being deployed.

In view of the information from my neighbor, my observations of the odd suddenly made sense to me. I realized that a portion of the room must have anticipated that I would use my public comment time to respond to Mayor Smith’s remarks from Monday. However, I hadn’t attended or watched Monday’s meeting by that point. Not knowing anything about the specifics, I’d stuck to talking about the Streets budget as directed by the meeting agenda.

Today I find that the Daily Chronicle has reported on the Monday remarks, and it occurs to me that some were probably expecting not only my comments on them but also, perhaps, a mayoral smackdown of yours truly.

Here are the remarks from the mayor, quotes pulled from the DC’s article, that I definitely would like to comment on now.

In response, Smith said he will continue to be tolerant of public comment before using the gavel to maintain order, but if comments become personal, he will not hesitate to bring them to a halt.

Smith recommended addressing a problem with a neighbor, city staff member or anyone else face to face. If the complaint is with a city staffer and discussing it with them doesn’t work, it’s appropriate to reach out to a supervisor or department head, he said.

“Finally, if you still feel the problem hasn’t been resolved, call the mayor,” Smith said. “Because, folks, the buck truly stops here.”

The first sentence is a vow of censorship, which is one of the main reasons I am posting today. While some limits on public participation are reasonable and legitimate, such as length of time allowed for each citizen to comment, the content of comments is sacrosanct with few exceptions. That’s First Amendment rights — a potential Federal case — not just Illinois Open Meetings Act.

The second and third sentences suggest the mayor is somehow forgetting or pretending that he and the assistant city manager were not present at the July 5 meeting, nearly two months ago, when much of Stevens’ objectionable behavior occurred. They were there, they did not intervene, and they have done nothing since then to apologize, attempt to compromise, or otherwise mend fences or demonstrate that a back-channel approach would ever work with the city crew.

Obviously, we were deemed unworthy of these courtesies.

The only choices left were to air the grievances to our elected representatives, or suffer in silence.

FOIA Center Timeline

May 10, 2017: First sign of trouble with new FOIA Center and staff. The FOIA email address disappears from the city website. Requesters contact me to tell me that city staff tried to bully or persuade them to use the FOIA system instead of using email to submit their requests.

June 12, 2017: At the council’s Committee of the Whole meeting, city resident and requester Mac McIntyre outlines several problems he is having with the FOIA Center, including staff response time, technical issues in trying to use his mobile device on the site, and staff’s dismissiveness of these difficulties. FOIA officer Aaron Stevens denies that any of these problems are real. Stevens also denies that staff refused to accept emailed requests as was reported the month before. Lastly, in answering a council member who asked where the FOIA changes were publicized, staff claimed that they’d used social media, but this turned out not to be true.

July 5, 2017: Mayor Smith holds a private meeting to bring citizens together with staff to work out the FOIA issues. Six residents attended, as well as assistant city manager Patty Hoppenstedt and FOIA officer Aaron Stevens. This meeting is the one I was talking about on August 14, when I requested a correction of the public record, which incorrectly showed the claim that the city had used social media to publicize the FOIA center rollout, and where I objected to Stevens’ behavior toward me.

August 14, 2017: Regular council meeting. The actual agenda item was for Stevens to provide an update on the FOIA Center and its implementation. He provided a positive report, but two residents, including myself, contradicted the rosy picture, in part by lodging complaints over the FOIA officer’s lack of professionalism. It included my verbal report that I’d been “talked down to, talked over, and at one point shouted down.”

August 28, 2017: At the regular council meeting (according to the Chronicle) Mayor Smith expressed regret over having allowed the criticism of staff and was quoted as saying, “While I feel strongly about allowing all of our citizens to speak their mind, I also realize that public meetings like this are not the venue during which personal criticism of anyone, regardless of who they are, should be tolerated.”

Aaron Stevens essentially has called several of us liars. That seems personal to me, and some of it happened publicly, but it was tolerated.