State rules against DeKalb's attempt to block names

comp:00004b879b77:00000067f8:36d0 0 _blank From the Editor's Desk blog: The names that DeKalb withheld

DeKALB – The Illinois Attorney General’s office has ruled that the City of DeKalb must release the names of the people who applied for the 3rd Ward aldermanic seat late last year.

In a letter dated Tuesday, the Public Access Counselor, a position in the Attorney General’s office, said the city had to release the names of the applicants but could redact personal e-mails and telephone numbers. The Daily Chronicle obtained the letter Tuesday evening in an e-mail from the Attorney General’s press office.

DeKalb Mayor Kris Povlsen said Tuesday night that the city had yet to receive the letter. He said the city would release the names once it receives the letter from the state.

“We are more than happy to release those names,” Povlsen said. “I really want to comply with the ruling.”

In January, local media outlets filed requests under the state’s Freedom of Information Act for the names of the people who applied for the open 3rd Ward seat, which had been vacated in December. Povlsen said that eight people applied for the position, and he contacted three others to see whether they were interested, but that those three did not apply for the post. Povlsen also has said he interviewed six candidates for the position.

Under a new law, the city had to get preapproval by the state’s Public Access Counselor, a position in the state’s Attorney General’s office, to deny the requests because it was using the privacy exemption as its basis for denial, saying releasing the information would be a “clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

In its denial of the request, the letter states that that exemption is defined as “the disclosure of information that is highly personal or objectionable to a reasonable person and in which the subject’s right to privacy outweighs any legitimate public interest in obtaining the information.”

The letter from the office of PAC Cara Smith, which is addressed to DeKalb City Clerk Steve Kapitan, states that that the city “failed to establish that disclosure of the applicants’ names would be highly personal or objectionable to a reasonable person or that the applicants’ right to privacy outweighs any legitimate public interest in obtaining information about the people seeking appointment to this public office.”

The letter also states that aldermen are public officials who represent residents of a given ward, and that once appointed those wishing to remain in the position would have to eventually submit nominating petitions to be on the ballot.

“As a result, when this public office becomes vacant, citizens have a legitimate interest in knowing who has applied for the position so that they may evaluate whether the individuals are qualified to represent a particular ward and discern why one applicant was appointed over others,” according to the letter.

Tuesday’s letter was in regard to a request from the Northern Star, the student newspaper at Northern Illinois University, which submitted a FOIA request Jan. 13 for the names of the applicants for the 3rd Ward seat.

Povlsen named Pam Verbic as the applicant on Jan. 21. The next day, the Daily Chronicle filed a FOIA request asking for correspondence and information regarding the appointment of Verbic to the seat, as well as any other individuals considered for the post.

The PAC office is expected to rule on the Daily Chronicle’s request this week, Attorney General spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said.

“We have to respond to each one separately,” Ziegler said.

That means a request made March 4 by the Daily Chronicle for the applicants for the 7th Ward aldermanic seat, which had been vacated in early February, will also need to be reviewed separately. Povlsen has said three candidates were interviewed for that post; Lisa Kammes was appointed to the seat March 4.

Kapitan said he alerted the PAC that the two media outlets had made similar requests, and that the city had received requests for the list of people interviewed for the vacant 7th Ward aldermanic seat as well.

Povlsen said he would talk with City Attorney Norma Guess today to see whether the city would release the names for the 7th Ward applicants ahead of the PAC’s ruling. He also said he hoped the city would get clarification as to what an applicant is. There were people who inquired about the 3rd Ward opening, he said, but did not fill out applications.

Povlsen also said he had concerns about releasing the names for two reasons. The first is he felt it was a confidentiality issue: City residents need to feel safe in talking with him on a personal level about issues. The second was that the ordinance that regulates aldermanic appointments did not require the mayor to turn over the names of applicants. Povlsen said it is the job of elected officials to follow the law, not interpret it.

“When I start interpreting the law ... that’s irresponsible,” Povlsen said.