During a special meeting held June 11, officials of the City of DeKalb met with their contracted financial consultant team known for short as EPI. EPI presented observations and recommendations in the areas of strategic revenue production and cost containment. The consultants also reviewed progress on strategic financial recommendations made in 2009, a time of deep financial crisis for the city.

Some, including myself, had a problem with the report because parts were redacted without explanation. The redacted information was requested by another resident under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and the requester was inexplicably given the same redacted version of the report as before. The requester interpreted this action as a denial of information and so did the Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor. The PAC asked the city to respond to a complaint about the denial. Today I’ll share that response and more.

To look at a copy of the response, go here and here. Notice city attorney Dean Frieders never cites the exemptions to FOIA the city is claiming, much less defends them.

Being mindful that this response may be shared with [the requester] I will not go into further written detail regarding why the stated exemptions apply.

It is entirely possible as well as highly desirable that the exemptions as well as some sort of context for them be established in the response. The requester is allowed to respond to the city’s response, and needs to know the city’s argument in order to do so.

However, Frieders evidently doesn’t think he needs to expend the effort. Is it because he already views the PAC attorney as simpatico?

…I placed a phone call to your office…and spoke with you…In that phone conversation, based upon the information provided, you advised that you concurred with the City’s perspective that the documents were exempt from disclosure under the provisions of FOIA.

Oh, OK. Guess it’s a done deal, then?

Actually, the requester does know what the claimed exemptions are, because in late June he submitted a slightly-reworded request for the same information as before, and this second submission was formally denied by the city. See the denial here. The exemptions claimed are:

5 ILCS 140/7(f): Preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda or other records in which opinions are expressed, or policies or actions are formulated [except that a specific record or relevant portion of a record shall not be exempt when the record is publicly cited and identified by the head of the public body].

5 ILCS 140/7(p): Records relating to collective negotiating matters between public bodies and their employees and representatives [except that any final contract or agreement shall be subject to inspection and copying].

The bracketed portions are exceptions to the exemptions, which the city didn’t cite.

What the argument seems to boil down to is whether the report can still be considered a “preliminary draft” or if it in essence constitutes the final report — too bad we can only guess.

Regardless of the outcome of the PAC’s review, however, there are aspects of the case that disturb me. The exemptions seem to suggest that the city is “negotiating” the outcomes of what is supposed to be an impartial report. Also, city officials are free to continue to consider the same recommendations in private that the rest of us are so far barred from reading at all (see page one of Frieder’s response, in which he states there are redacted and unredacted reports for different audiences).

It’s censorship — as if members of the public are children, or unworthy of note — and violates the spirit of FOIA even if Dean Frieders successfully weasels a technicality.