The Piatt County State’s Attorney has denied a Freedom of Information Act request from the county board chairman for all of her email correspondence with members of area media, an HR consultant, county Emergency Management Agency Director Mike Holmes, and members of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.
The request from County Board Chairman Ray Spencer asked for emails between Dec. 31, 2018 and Jan. 1, 2020.
The FOIA, filed on Jan. 2, was denied by the state’s attorney’s office the next day. Reasons given include their claim that it was “overly broad, and voluminous.”
But, more importantly, they say it could net Spencer information about employees that he may have disputes with, including their office and the EMA.
“Attorney/client confidentiality and protection of the county are the main reasons” for denying the request, said Piatt County State’s Attorney Dana Rhoades.
“FOIA was made for media, for citizens to get information about their government,” she added. “It’s not for government officials to use against other government citizens.”
As for the EMA portion of the request, Assistant State’s Attorney Elizabeth Dobson said safety was at risk if emergency plans go public.
“It is completely inappropriate to FOIA the (emergency) plans we have, and the plans we don’t have. We don’t need to let every terrorist know what our plans are,” said Dobson.
But Spencer felt the blanket denial of every document he requested is “based on a flimsy and incorrect interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act, an interpretation that is not only legally wrong, but designed solely to benefit and protect the public body at the expense of transparency and open government. To allow the state’s attorney to say she does not have to comply is to place her above the law.”
He said he planned to appeal the denial to the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor.
“The denial makes a mockery of the FOIA process and should not be allowed to stand. I am asking the public access counselor for careful consideration of each of the public body’s legal points for denying the request,” said Spencer.
Spencer also forwarded to the J-R a FOIA request he had received from WCIA Channel 3 on Dec. 15, which asked for a year’s worth emails in relation to his capacity as the Piatt County board chairman from his personal email account.
At Spencer’s request, WCIA narrowed the list to emails between him and county department heads, auditors, state emergency management personnel, and the Journal-Republican, among others. That request was fulfilled.
As for Spencer’s subsequent FOIA sent to the state’s attorney’s office last week, Rhoades and Dobson said the request was also denied because:
–they said electronic communications from non-governmental agencies, such as members of the media, are not eligible through the Freedom of Information Act. Spencer had requested all emails between Rhoades and any persons employed by WCIA Channel 3, the Piatt County Journal-Republican and the Champaign News-Gazette, specifically naming Lyndsay Jones (WCIA), Christie Battista (WCIA) and Steve Hoffman (Journal-Republican). State’s attorney officials also say a request for emails with Donna Rogers of Rogers HR Consulting are also not eligible for the same reason.
Also requested are emails with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, including, but not limited to Jonathan England, Tolly Knezevich and Iris Ducey.
–“the request violates the attorney-client privilege between the State’s Attorney’s Office and the department heads in Piatt County,” said the state’s attorney’s office in the denial;
–EMA correspondence is exempt, said Rhoades and Dobson, because drafts, notes, memoranda and other records in which opinions are expressed or policies formulated are exempt; for safety issues; that communications between a public body and an attorney or auditor that would not be subject to discovery in litigation is exempt; and that records relating to a public body’s adjudication of an employee grievance is exempt.
The response also claims “Chairman Spencer is engaged in the disciplinary process against a particular employee,” and that it is “inappropriate for the requested information to be used against the employee,” although Rhoades said there has been no formal discipline handed out at the time of the FOIA request.