Naperville officials call $73,000 in FOIA requests "harassment, abuse"
Naperville City Council members say they support residents' rights to access government information, but some believe smart grid opponents have gone too far.
City Manager Doug Krieger said Monday the city has received and responded to more than 100 Freedom of Information Act requests related to the Naperville Smart Grid Initiative since Feb. 17, 2011, and a majority have been filed by the Naperville Smart Meter Awareness group.
The total estimated staff time spent on replying to the requests and related legal issues is 1,475 hours through last Thursday. The city's total cost so far is $73,750 at an estimated rate of $50 per hour.
Krieger said city departments -- not including the legal department -- have spent an estimated 875 hours processing the requests.
During the past six months, the legal department estimates it has spent more than 600 hours on issues related to the smart grid initiative, including legal assistance on multiple FOIA requests, questions regarding the city's ability to install smart meters and options when the city encounters opposition, and defense of the city in a pending federal lawsuit and representation of the electoral board.
Krieger said the unexpected expense will come from the city's electric utility fund. He said it is unlikely to reach limits that would force the city to increase rates in the immediate future.
"Any costs associated with the utility will put upward pressure on rates," he said. "At this point, we are still confident with the council's previous decision for a 0 percent rate increase for the current year."
Councilman Grant Wehrli said he asked Krieger to assemble the costs associated with the FOIA requests because he "was looking to see what this group was costing us."
Wehrli said he believes many of the questions could be answered during a sit-down meeting, but only one opponent has taken him up on his offer.
"It's their right to ask questions and seek information but I also need to know how costs are escalating. We need to make sure we're accounting for that," he said. "At some point you go, 'Really? $75,000?' At this point it's just harassment and borderline abuse of the FOIA system."
Councilman Steve Chirico agreed but said he wasn't surprised to see the total cost so far. He also said the opponents were "abusing" and "gaming the system."
"The irony is not lost on me that these people claim to be about saving money, yet they're forcing us to spend more taxpayer money," Chirico said. "We can argue all day long about when we will recover the investment in the electric utility system. I believe it's in the six- to seven-year range, but we'll never recover the $75,000 we've spent responding to them. We all believe in transparency, but come on."
Kim Bendis, president of the smart meter opposition group, said she believes the city could have saved all of that money had officials been more forthcoming with information when the questions were first asked.
"If words like harassment and abuse are being thrown out, then just let the information be in the open. It's not abuse if regular citizens are asking questions about how our tax dollars are being spent," Bendis said. "It's ridiculous for (Chirico) to say throw it back on the taxpayers. We're just trying to keep our government accountable."
Councilman Doug Krause, the lone councilman calling for the smart meter installation to be halted, said he had not yet read Krieger's memo about the costs but he doesn't understand what the fuss is about.
"I would say that's just the cost of doing government," Krause said. "Perhaps if we were more transparent and answered more questions there wouldn't need to be so many FOIAs in the first place."
The city maintains the initiative is a safe upgrade to its $360 million electric network to provide more efficient, cost-effective and reliable service to customers. The plan's critics say they are concerned about the long-term health risks associated with the wireless RF meters and the safety concerns associated with connecting to a wireless network.
Opponents are pressing forward with a federal lawsuit to halt the installation of nearly 57,000 smart meters throughout the city.