Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What lawyers might say about you

A change in the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) about a year ago makes it harder and more awkward for a public body to deny a FOIA request. Instead of merely sending a denial letter to the requestor, now the public body must inform the Public Access Counselor (PAC) at the Office of the Illinois Attorney General that it intends to deny a request and seek approval to do so.

This often results in handling by the legal counsel for the public body; i.e., the public body tells, or allows, its attorney to send a letter to the PAC. And the requestor (the citizen) gets to see that letter.

So, what might a lawyer say to the PAC when he requests permission to deny a FOIA request? Will he merely stick to the facts, or might he blow the situation out of all reasonable proportions? Would the lawyer stretch the situation around the globe at its 25,000-mile circumference, hoping to "snow" the PAC enough that permission will be granted?

Recently, a Marengo-area resident, who lives adjacent to McHenry County Conservation District hunting grounds, asks for the names of hunters who had received permits from MCCD to hunt on its public property. You may or may not know that public lands, purchased by and maintained by your tax dollars, are closed off at times, so that only hunters can use them. You may not know that bullets or shot fired by the hunters do not always remain on MCCD property.

In this case, MCCD is represented by the law firm of Ancel Glink, now well-known from its association with the Grafton Township trustees who are (or were) at war with the Grafton Township Supervisor. Ancel Glink's lawyer and author of a December 3rd letter to the PAC on behalf of MCCD, Scott Puma, had some of the following remarks to make, as he attempted to justify the MCCD position in his request for denial of the resident's FOIA request:

"We now understand that Mrs. S (name shortened to protect the innocent) may be unsure about which documents she is actually requesting." (slam, slam)

MCCD and its legal counselor asserted that release of the names of the hunter-permittees would constitute a "clearly unwarranted invasion of personnel (sic) privacy" and that release of the names of hunters who were minors would be "an especially egregious invasion of their personal privacy."

I don't know what Ancel Glink's letter to the PAC cost MCCD. $250? $500? Does it cost more, when lawyers use "lawyer" words; for example, "It seems especially repugnant to allow the release of the names of minors ..."

Mr. Puma went on to question the ability of the legislators to anticipate requests for the names of minors participating in programs offered by public bodies, writing, "Such an interpretation of FOIA would pedophiles open access to the names of children..."

I can tell you that Mr. Puma's choice of words has got the Marengo resident steaming from both ears!

Mr. Puma stated that MCCD is "concerned" that Mrs. S may "attempt to contact the participants" in hunting programs. Did MCCD or Ancel Glink or Mr. Puma contact her to inquire to what use she might put the names? Did they ask her if she is concerned about the lead from hunters' shells hitting her home or if she is concerned about injury to her children from flying lead?

Mr. Puma threw in more "clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy" wording, as if the length of his letter might persuade the PAC.

It didn't. In its reply the Public Access Counselor ruled against MCCD and told them to produce the public records.

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