COD trustees may have to pay to get financial records they seek
Two College of DuPage trustees who filed Freedom of Information Act requests for financial records from their own school might each have to pay as much as $100 to get the documents.
Trustees Erin Birt and Dianne McGuire last week submitted requests seeking financial reports, invoices and disbursement records dating to April 30. They also want records related to the Illinois auditor general's performance audit of COD.
But the college's freedom of information officer, Barb Mitchell, this week informed Birt and McGuire that their July 27 FOIA submission is being treated as "a voluminous request" because it includes more than five individual requests for more than five different categories of records.
In a letter dated Monday, Mitchell wrote that responding to the trustees' requests will require compiling more than 500 pages of public records.
The trustees have until Aug. 14 to amend their request.
"If you do not respond within 10 business days or if your request continues to be voluminous, the college will respond to the request and assess fees ..." Mitchell wrote.
On Wednesday, Birt said it's "unreasonable and unethical" to charge elected officials trying to get information to perform their duties.
"I should be able to look at every single piece of paper that goes through that college," Birt said. "They're attempting to bully me into requesting less documents or pay for it."
Nevertheless, McGuire said she and Birt are considering modifying their FOIA request.
"As a sitting board member, I didn't expect to be utilizing FOIA," McGuire said. "So to see that there was a possibility of charging me to see the records, I don't know what to say about that."
The two also have submitted a FOIA request for information related to an internal investigation into policies and practices at the college, but the school asked for more time to respond, Birt said.
The college Wednesday issued a written statement saying it's treating Birt and McGuire the same way it treats other residents.
"When trustees file FOIAs, Illinois law places them in the shoes of the public," the statement reads. "So, Trustee Birt's FOIA has been treated exactly as other such requests. At easily more than 1,000 pages, and six separate requests, Trustee Birt's FOIA request qualifies legally as 'voluminous.'"
COD officials said the fees are allowed only to defray the cost of copying the documents and won't be "exorbitant or punitive."
Under state law, public bodies can charge up to $100 to provide electronic data if FOIA requests are considered too voluminous or frequent. News media and nonprofit and academic organizations are exempt from the fees, including the watchdog groups that have submitted FOIA requests to the school over the past year.
While COD can charge the trustees, doing so is "not in the spirit" of helping board members get the information they need to make educated decisions, according to one government watchdog organization.
"Not cooperating with board members to get them the information they need is problematic," said Maryam Judar, executive director of the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center.
If COD officials believe the FOIA request is overwhelming, Judar said, they could have responded differently and worked with Birt to narrow what she's looking for.
"While they have at their disposal the option of labeling the request a voluminous request, it's not mandatory," Judar said.
In her July 27 request, Birt claimed the "amount, quality and timeliness of information" provided to the board "has diminished to an unacceptable level" since April 30.
That's the date when three new members were seated on the COD board of trustees, forming a new majority and electing Kathy Hamilton as chairwoman to replace Birt. On that same night, Hamilton and the new majority also put COD President Robert Breuder on paid administrative leave, authorized the state to conduct the performance audit and hired a law firm to do an internal investigation of the school's policies, personnel, practices and finances.
Despite the power shift on the board, school officials stress that Birt and McGuire haven't been denied information.
In the school's statement, officials said Birt has met with the COD finance staff within the past 90 days.
"They have provided every document she has requested," the statement reads. "COD has serviced each of her requests. COD is unaware of Trustee Birt asking any question or requesting any document that has not been provided to her. COD hopes Trustee Birt will continue to request and receive information in this collaborative manner."