This is a heartwarming FOI tale of persistence and truth prevailing in the end. The feel-good story of the week!
After generations of having their hopes dashed by immovable bureaucrats, dismissive officials and deferential judges, advocates of open government can hardly be blamed for being skeptical about the effectiveness of freedom of information laws. As the recent Illinois decision in Rock River Times v. Rockford Public School District shows, however, sometimes those laws actually work — at least in the end.
The document at issue in Rock River Times was a June 19, 2010, letter written by Patrick Hardy, a departing high school principal, to LaVonne Sheffield, then a controversial superintendent of Rockford Public Schools, one of Illinois’ largest school districts. In the nine-page, single-spaced letter, Hardy disputed Sheffield’s version of many events and accused Sheffield of poor leadership, dishonest management and excessive drinking.
Having heard about it, The Rock River Times, a small community newspaper, requested a copy of Hardy’s letter on Aug. 26, 2010, under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. On Sept. 1, the school district — following the procedures required by the act — advised the Times and Illinois’ Public Access Counselor that it intended to deny the request….
…On Oct. 3, 2012, the Illinois Appellate Court for the Second District unanimously affirmed the trial judge’s decision, holding that the judge had correctly applied the amendments regarding awards of attorney’s fees and finding that the penalty was appropriate. In affirming the penalty, the appellate court was particularly troubled by the district’s reliance on the purported “verbal opinion” of the public-access counselor.
“Not only did the school willfully and intentionally violate the FOIA by raising a third exemption after the first two were denied,” the court said, but it also “‘looked for a way to save face’ rather than simply admit it was wrong.”
YES! Game, set, match, openness….