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Details emerge in Geneva Township FOIA issue

GENEVA – The Freedom of Information Act officer for the Geneva Township Highway District was removed from her post March 20 over criticisms that she released information that violated attorney-client privilege, refused to seek an extension of time and told the requester that the commissioner, Mark Wissing, was refusing to release requested records.

Sheri McMurray, the highway department’s now former FOIA officer, said she would not comment.

The issue began with FOIA requests for records from Wissing’s challenger in the April 9 consolidated election, Michael Abts. Abts filed records requests Feb. 19, Feb. 26, March 1, March 8 and March 26, seeking, among other things, all sent and received emails and phone records from Wissing over the four years he has served as highway commissioner.

“I wanted to see the incoming and outgoing emails and cell calls to see if he was using them for political use,” Abts said. Although Wissing mingled the personal accounts with the government accounts, he said he never used a government account for political purposes.

“Not a one,” Wissing said.

Wissing dismissed McMurray as FOIA officer in a March 20 letter stating that her conduct “has been unnecessarily, unjustifiably and deliberately confrontational and insubordinate.” Wissing’s letter asserted that she refused to furnish him or the district’s attorney, Kenneth Shepro, with copies of Wissing’s records, refused to cooperate with Shepro in preparing a response to the request or in reviewing her written response.

Wissing asserts that McMurray told the requester that he refused to provide the records – which he said is not true.

“I have no alternative but to remove you … effective immediately,” Wissing’s letter states.

In a March 22 email from Shepro to McMurray, the attorney takes her to task for releasing emails between Wissing and his attorney, which are not subject to release under FOIA.

“I can only conclude in light of your certification as FOIA officer by the Attorney General that your actions were a deliberate attempt to disseminate documents that would compromise the privilege,” Shepro wrote. “You are admonished in the strongest possible terms.”

Shepro was appointed as the highway district’s interim FOIA officer.

Wissing said he did not send email from his township account, but from his personal account to the township server so there would be a record. Wissing said he now was in the process of collecting them. As to the cellphone records, Shepro said Wissing had township calls forwarded to his personal cellphone. The carrier, AT&T, only can provide one year’s worth. And as officials recently discovered, the carrier supplied only Wissing’s personal number and the township number, not the originating numbers.

“There are no numbers for incoming calls, so how do we get them? So we are writing back [to AT&T] this afternoon,” Shepro said.

Donald Craven, an attorney for the Illinois Press Association, said McMurray’s removal and the heightened issues connected to the records requests are not that unusual.

“It’s Illinois,” Craven said. “It’s local politics at its best.”

But when a public official uses a personal email or cellphone for government business, Craven said, it is still a public record subject to FOIA.

“According to the [Illinois] Attorney General, township business on a personally owned computer or cellphone is still a public record and still has to be disclosed,” Craven said. “The theory here is, people are entitled to see how the people’s business is being done. It’s not that hard.”

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