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Attorney general finds Geneva library must release some Cetron documents

GENEVA – The Illinois attorney general determined this week in an non-binding decision that the Geneva Public Library must release some records regarding its environmental review of the Cetron property.

The Kane County Chronicle filed a Freedom of Information Act request in the fall that sought, among other documents, results of the library’s environmental review of the Cetron property while it was considering buying it as a new library site.

Library officials decided not to buy the property, citing environmental concerns, but they refused to release the environmental report, prompting the newspaper to file an appeal.

Public Access Counselor Steve Silverman determined that the district must release two of its contracts to Aires Consulting of Batavia to assess the Cetron property, but upheld the denial of the actual environmental study.  

“Records of the obligation, receipt and use of public funds of the state, units of local government and school districts are public records available for inspection by the public according to law,” Silverman wrote, citing the 1970 Illinois Constitution.

Silverman cited similar language in the Freedom of Information Act, and a public access opinion from May 9, that the “public has a right to know the purposes for which public funds are expended.”

Silverman upheld the library’s denial of the environmental studies under an exemption that is allowed for preliminary drafts, notes and records in which opinions are expressed.

The exemption is intended to protect public bodies’ communication process “and encourage frank and open discussion … before a final decision is made,” according to Silverman’s findings.

Silverman did not support an additional exemption of trade secrets cited by the district’s attorney, Roger Ritzman, asserting that release of the documents would inflict competitive harm to Aires Consulting Group Inc., or make it more difficult for the library district to get similar information in the future.

“Neither the district’s response to this office nor its response to the FOIA request provide any explanation for the application of [this exemption],” according to Silverman’s findings.

“These contracts are not marked as proprietary, privileged or confidential, and the district has not provided any facts from which this office could conclude that disclosure of the contracts would cause competitive harm to Aires or to the district,” according to Silverman’s findings.

Board president Esther Steel said Ritzman was out of town, and the board would wait for him to return to advise them what to do.

Esther Seitz, an attorney with Craven Law, which represents Illinois media, praised the decision, saying the attorney general “properly concluded that residents have a right to know about environmental concerns a publicly paid consultant identified.”

“The attorney general’s decision appropriately reins in the library district’s attempt to hide important facts affecting residents’ health and lives,” Seitz said. “Moreover, the decision highlights that when a public body hires a private contractor – on the taxpayers’ dime – the scope of that contractor’s public assignment cannot be kept secret. Government agencies should not be able to hide behind their contractors.”

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