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OPINION: Transparency Not Compatible with an Attitude of Disdain Towards Citizenry

"And that is the environment that exists at City Hall."—Tamara Brenner.

Following is an open letter from Elmhurst resident Tamara Brenner to Mayor Morley dated Jan. 13 regarding the City's recent FOIA violation. 

Dear Mayor Morley:

I'll be relatively brief because my efforts right now need to be focused on preparing for the public hearing on the Addison redevelopment project to be held on Jan 23. It's great that the application materials are publicly available on BoardDocs; without use of this technology, I would have had to submit a FOIA request to obtain these documents, as I did prior to the first Addison hearing last year.

Government business generates a lot of paper, particularly on a major project such as Addison (over $5 million already spent, another ~$15 million projected outlay, all public money).  To put 900 pages in perspective, on Board Docs right now, there are nearly 500 pages posted on the Addison project and nearly 300 pages on the matter of electronic signs in residential neighborhoods.  City Council agenda packets often contain over 100 pages.  Add on flooding, add on Hahn Street, add on the proposed Prairie Path tunnel, add on the budget, etc. By taking an interest in just a small number of issues relevant to the City of Elmhurst, one might have occasion to wade through thousands of pages; 900 is barely respectable.

Quantity of pages released is not a pertinent metric for measuring the City's magnanimity in responding to FOIA requests. Within the responses I received to the nine (9) FOIA requests I submitted during calendar year 2013, there were often duplicative pages, sometimes multiple copies of the same material. More importantly, I have no way of knowing how many pages of material the City has withheld pursuant to claiming an exemption, which is not an uncommon occurrence, because in those instances there has simply been an absence of documents.

With respect to the recent FOIA violation, if the City desired 'clarification' about whether it was acceptable to claim an exemption, it could have proactively asked the Public Access Counselor for an advisory opinion.  But the City was apparently quite certain of itself.  When I expressed my concern that the denial was not proper, I was told, "this is the City’s position."  The City again defended its position through the legal reasoning it provided to the PAC during the review process.  I initiated the Request for Review with the PAC, not to facilitate clarification for the City’s benefit, but to protest the City’s decision.  How many equally wrong decisions has the City made in the past that were not challenged? And what is to prevent it from making equally wrong decisions again in the future?

Declarations by the Mayor and the City Manager that the City of Elmhurst operates in an open and transparent manner do not make it so.  It is not transparent to deny access to public records, releasing them as directed only after having been found in violation of the FOIA. Transparency is not compatible with an attitude of disdain towards the citizenry and that is the environment that currently exists at City Hall. When citizen involvement is no longer viewed as a nuisance, perhaps we'll see transparency in action; right now it's just a talking point.—Tamara Brenner, Elmhurst
Joe O'Malley January 13, 2014 at 10:15 PM
Tamara Brenner, you are my new hero! You have articulated the concerns of many of us in a succinct and precise manner. Thank you.
Doremus Jessup January 14, 2014 at 09:31 AM
"Declarations by the Mayor and the City Manager that the City of Elmhurst operates in an open and transparent manner", translation; "these aren't the droids you're looking for, move along." Great Job Miss Brenner. I wonder if they had started the agreed upon 4 story structure if it could have been built now rather than this gaping hole we still have in downtown? How many other businesses, like Plass and My Favorite Toy Store will close before we won't even need the 4 story structure?
Ian Graham January 14, 2014 at 02:40 PM
Good God, get a life Tamara.
8675309 January 14, 2014 at 03:29 PM
Technically, according to the reports, we don't even need the 4 story structure now.
Mike Worrell January 17, 2014 at 12:47 PM
Ian Graham, you should be grateful for residents who invest their time in watchdog activities related to government conduct and expenditures. Even when I personally do not have a lot of concern about a particular matter, I feel our local government is improved and every resident benefits from the accountability they provide. I appreciate and support it.

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