February 19, 2013
The Chicago Tribune
Clerk calls candidate 'broom' behind records requests
By: Andy Grimm
Tinley Park village Clerk Pat Rea singled out mayoral candidate Stephen Eberhardt as "the broom" behind sweeping requests for village records that cost the village more than $10,000 last year and nearly as much so far in 2013.
Making his annual report on the village's handling of Freedom Of Information Act requests last week— the week after Eberhardt filed a complaint against Rea and other incumbent candidates based on e-mails and other documents he obtained from records queries — Rea said Eberhardt was the most expensive requester among the top three filers.
Eberhardt's 21 requests in 2012— out of a total of 2,469 received by the village — cost the village $9,212. His requests so far this year, and several challenges he filed with the state Public Access Counselor, accounted for 90 percent of spending on FOIA requests.
Rea said the barrage of sometimes complicated queries since the state changed FOIA statutes in 2010 could require his office to hire extra staff.
All told, the village spent more than $40,000 on staff and legal fees related to FOIA requests, with nearly half that taken up by the top three individuals. Eberhardt and trustee candidate Karen Wiegand accounted for about $10,000 in FOIA spending last year.
After Rea's report was released at the Feb. 12 Committee of the Whole meeting, Eberhardt questioned the timing and the intention of Rea's analysis.
"The clerk is very misinformed if he thinks people are not chilled" by being named publicly for requesting information, he said, claiming residents and city employees frequently give him tips that lead to his requests.
"They just flat out won't do it (themselves) because they don't want their names published."
The attorney for years has posted information that he says points out wasteful spending by the village on his website, tinleysparks.com, and has built his campaign for the April election on a theme of making village government more open and responsive.
In his complaint to the state Board of Elections, Eberhardt and his slate of fellow candidates alleged e-mail messages showed Mayor Ed Zabrocki's secretary doing political work while on the clock for the village, and that Zabrocki and fellow incumbents Rea and trustees T.J. O'Grady, Brian Maher and David Seaman all used photographs paid for by the village on their campaign website.
The photographs have been removed from the Team Tinley campaign site, though Rea said the photographer hired by the village retained the rights to the photos and the candidates paid to use them.
Responding to information requests consumed 1,182 hours of staff time in 2012, including overtime required to meet deadlines imposed by state laws, Rea said. There were 2,313 requests in 2011.
The costs of fulfilling those requests, including attorneys fees and staff pay, was $40,761. The information on requests, including the names of the requester's and the cost to the village, is posted on the clerk's website on a regular basis.
Rea suggested the village might hire an attorney or paralegal part-time to handle information requests, or invest in software that would sift through documents to find keywords relevant to information requests.
Eberhardt on Feb. 12 maintained that his work as a watchdog likely saved the villagemoney by instigating policy changes, and that his requests have turned up information about large pay raises for top administrators that cost the village more than his requests.
Tinley Park began monitoring costs related to information requests three year ago, after the state revamped its FOIA laws and established stricter timelines for fulfilling all requests for public records, Rea said.
The changes were welcomed by good government advocates, though public officials complained the five-day window to respond to most requests would tie up staff and increase costs, said John Elson, a professor at Northwestern University Law School.
"There have been a few examples where governments have been deluged with requests, and it is a concern that some people might be doing it for personal gain," Elson said. "In theory, if a person is actually discovering abuses, then the laws are meeting their intended purpose... it was anticipated there would be not-insignificant costs."