Thursday, September 29, 2011
Hoffman Estates Claims FOIA Loophole In Sears EDA Requests
Under the new FOIA amendments, ordinary requests have to be answered in five working days. Except for holidays that's the same as it was before. But lawmakers carved out an exception for what civil lawyers officially call "vexatious litigants", colloquially, "cranks" or worse. The Freedom of Information act calls them "Recurrent Requesters." If a person makes too many FOIA requests too often, the new law gives officials an extra 16 working days, almost three calendar weeks, to come up with a response. That goes for requests from groups, too, only the new provision doesn't define what's a group.
"We want to know what they're doing with the money for the EDA," said requester and Algonquin attorney Nancy Zettler using a collective pronoun. "We want to know what they're going to do with it in the future," she said. "Nobody has checked up on this in 20 years."
The EDA gives property taxes on Sears headquarters in Hoffman Estates back to Sears. It's due to run out at the end of next year and Sears has threatened to leave if it isn't renewed. With an EDA extension, the taxes will revert to normal, the bulk, about $14 million per year, going to School District 300. "(Because of the EDA) we've had to raise our own taxes several times in the last 20 years to educate our kids," said Zettler.
Hoffman Estates is the paymaster for the EDA money so that's where Zettler and the others sent their information requests. Individually they weren't recurrent requesters. But Assistant Corporate Counsel Patti Cross thought when the group of requests crossed her desk they looked like a request from a group that would trigger the exception. "They looked like persons with a common purpose," she said. So she devised a series of tests to infer a group's existence. Among other things, they all wanted info about the EDA. Likewise, "Except for the (specific request) paragraphs the letters were identical word for word," said Cross. "Two of them even used the same FEDEX/Kinkos (delivery service) within a couple of hours of each other."
Zettler said classifying her and the others as a group was by no means QED. She admitted she and fellow Algonquin resident Leslie Russo used to be members of Advance 300, a loose pro-tax referendum group five years ago but moribund until recently. However, she said she only met the other two within the past month. "We're really just four taxpaying parents," she said.
Cross said, absent a legal definition, they looked like a group to her, adding that, anyway, she hadn't denied the requests for information, just delayed them. "We had eight department heads working on this yesterday," she said. "I'm working my little fingers to the bone," said Cross, to dig out the voluminous material the parents requested.
Even so, the extra time Cross claimed stretches the deadline for Hoffman Estates to produce info on the EDA out to Oct. 13. That's only two weeks before the Legislature reconvenes with a vote on its extension expected.
In the pic: Sears Holdings headquarters in Hoffman Estates.