Citizens set record in demanding Oak Park information

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By BILL DWYER

Chalk it up to good government, closed government, conspiracy theories or plain old curiosity. But the number of formal requests for the Oak Park village government to release information under the state's 20-year-old Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is ballooning.

During Sandra Sokol's 11-and-one-half-years as Oak Park village clerk, she has seen FOIA requests go from an infrequent occurrence to something demanding considerable staff time and effort. Starting around 1999, requests for material under FOIA began rising noticeably at Oak Park Village Hall, Sokol said. In the past three years, those numbers have exploded. In 2002, there were 208 requests; that more than doubled in 2003, to 432. As of the first week of December the figure is just over 600 requests, a nearly 50 percent increase.

Every one of those requests goes through the village clerk's office, which means it goes through Jae Lee. Lee has been with the village clerk's office just 18 months, but Sokol readily credits him with  helping transform how her office deals with FOIA requests.

"Jae's done a great job," said Sokol. "It's easier having someone specific doing the follow up (on requests)."

Sokol adds that probably the most critical improvement Lee has brought to her office is the data base he created which allows the clerk's office to track FOIA requests from submittal through either release of information or formal denial. Under state law, the village has seven business days to either grant or deny a request. In the event circumstances require more time, an additional seven days may be allowed.

Sokol breaks the types of FOIA requests down to the simple and the complex. She said Lee is authorized to provide material  for many of the simple requests immediately, such as meeting minutes and copies of ordinances. For the more complex and involved requests, Sokol or a specific department head must sign off on the request. Often the village's law department is  consulted prior to release of information. That, said Sokol, stems not from a desire to keep information from citizens, but rather to adhere to rules written into the FOIA intended to safeguard people's privacy, and shield law enforcement investigations and other sensitive governmental operations from unwarranted and even harmful scrutiny.

Along with various accident and police incident reports, a large number of Oak Park FOIA requests are from such entities as law offices seeking information for cases they're handling, and engineering and architectural firms that need technical information for various types of projects.

Fully one quarter of all requests, however, come from five top individual requesters (there's a tie for fifth at eight a piece). And two-thirds of those come from one person. The unchallenged champion of Filled-out FOIA Forms is Oak Parker Dan Fore. Fore, a regular attendee at all sorts of village board and committee meetings, had submitted 104 FOIA requests as of the first week of December. That average of two per week easily outdistances the next closest individual, who had 31, and a third person, with 20 requests.

"I left Barbara Mullarkey in the dust two years ago," said Fore proudly, referring to another well known village government watchdog and former WEDNESDAY JOURNAL columnist. To put things in perspective, this newspaper ranked fourth with nine FOIA requests (now 10) in 2004.

All told, Fore estimates he's submitted 350 FOIA requests over the years. He said FOIA allows him access to the sort of specific, detailed information needed to bolster a case he's making, or to confirm or refute facts presented by government officials. By way of example, he mentions his past testimony before the Zoning Board of Appeals during deliberations over changes a business wanted to make with a building. That business, he said, had made conflicting statements about the safety of the neighborhood. So Fore FOIAed  police incident reports for the building's neighborhood.

"We found out it was even worse than what the neighbors thought," he said.

Mullarkey said recently that her use of FOIA's is basically an attempt to keep track of how the village government handles its finances.

"I was just trying to find out how much the village takes in and how much goes out."

Mullarkey seconds Sokol's praise for Lee's contributions to the clerk's office, saying, "Thank God for Jae." She's not as happy, though, with the village's ultimate handling of a number of her past FOIA requests. Of 24 requests submitted during 2004, she said, eight were rejected. In addition, she said, "a great many requests were not granted within seven days."

Mullarkey's biggest criticism, however, has less to do with FOIA and more to do with how the village handles its financial reporting. "The system has to be completely overhauled so that people can understand (what's happening)" she said.

Like anything else, the time and attention required to satisfy FOIA requests costs money. In 2003, according to Sokol, it cost $15.94 to process the average FOIA request. In 2004 that rose to $18.07. That is projected to rise to $18.50 in 2005.

Sokol, who doesn't see the pattern changing anytime soon, puts  a good natured public service face on it all, saying "We're here to serve the public." Still, she wishes that more citizens realized that submitting a FOIA request isn't always necessary.

"Meeting minutes and our codes are all online," she said, adding that another ready source of information is the public library.

Sokol and Lee also say that the public can make their job a bit easier just by being more specific. A FOIA request Lee handled in November illustrates that point. It asked for information related to Barrie Park, and originally entailed over 10,000 pages of material, before village staff assisted the party in making a more focused request for information. Even then, it ended up being the largest release of information by Oak Park ever, over 2,000 pages, entailing hours of staff time and considerable expense.

"(It) was $220 just for copying fees," said Lee.

Ironically, unless an individual wants to have their requests made public, the clerk's office cannot release the names of people making FOIA requests?#34;that would be a violation of their privacy.

"Of course, you can always FOIA it," offered Sokol, grinning devilishly.

FOIAs aren't much of an issue for River Forest, according to Assistant Village Manager Steve Guitierrez, who oversees all FOIA matters. The village, he said, receives around four or five such requests monthly, most all of them regarding information related to building permits and traffic incidents.

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