Berwyn clerk calls for more accessible city records during candidate forum

Incumbent Margaret Paul says residents should join public health district board

Incumbent Berwyn City Clerk and Health District President Margaret Paul want to bring residents on to the Berwyn Public Health District board, the better to gather input from the resident’s the office serves.

During a recent town hall form hosted by WBEZ and the Cicero Independiente, Paul also addressed rooting out corruption in city hall and how she uses the Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] to deal with “obstructionist” departments that can make it difficult for the public and some city council members to access public city records.

Finally, she talked about how the public health district failed Berwyn residents in the early weeks of COVID-19, the steps she’s taken to make it more responsive and the steps she’d like to take over the next four years.

Paul’s opponent, Rafael Avila, decline multiple invitations to participate in the forum, said WBEZ political editor Alex Keefe and Cicero Independient co-founder Irene Romulo.

By law, the Berwyn city clerk also serves as Berwyn Township clerk and as a member of Berwyn Public Health District board.

Most years, the health district commitment is minimal, or at least, more manageable. This year, the health district found itself at the center of Berwyn’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which significantly affected the city’s Latino population, Paul said.

Usually, the Berwyn Township Supervisor also serves as health district president. But Paul took on the role in 2020, as Berwyn Township Supervisor Elizabeth Pechous, who is not seeking re-election, is stepping into the health district clerk spot.

“I’d say back in in January 2020 the health district should have been given a grade of F,” Paul said. “We have the words ‘public health’ chiseled in stone above our front door. We have to make sure we’re leading the way.

“But one of the things we failed to do right away was let our neighbors know how serious the problem was in Berwyn. I started my own Facebook page where I daily updated how many neighbors in Berwyn have died, 100 so far, “Paul said.

She put the number of COVID-19 infections in Berwyn at more than 6,000, or more than 10% of the population.

Paul said she was able to bring the first drive-up COVID-19 testing to Berwyn. After her initial event, the city’s multi-departmental Unified Command, which is led by Berwyn Mayor Robert Lovero, took over the job.

In November, after residents began complaining about waiting weeks for results under the Unified Command events, the city canceled a planned event and subsequently partnered with a new testing provider.

Paul also talked about the health district’s partnerships with healthcare providers to provide testing.

“We’ve partnered with CIRCLE, doctors out of Loyola, and now we’re having Covid testing every Friday,” she said. “Our main focus on that is our neighbors who are unemployed, don’t have insurance and particularly the people in the Latinx community who are underserved and so often in essential lines of employment. We don’t ask for ID. We don’t ask for insurance.”

Part of the problem in responding to the pandemic or anything substantive and time consuming that the health district might encounter is its tiny staff, Paul said. If re-elected, she’ll advocate for hiring someone to manage the day-to-day office duties, freeing up the elected officials to expand programming and outreach. A key part of that will be expanding the three-person, all-elected health district she said.

“Those three seats are proscribed by state statute, but we can also open it up to have residents sit with us,” to provide more input on the people the district serves, Paul said.

As far as the vaccine goes, Berwyn doesn’t have the authority to create its own mass vaccination site, Paul said, but even if it did, the core problem remains: the federal government isn’t yet distributing enough vaccine to go around.

“Everyone is scrambling,” Paul said. “The state of Illinois is struggling. Until there is a steady supply and a sufficient supply, we’re going to be like a regular doctor’s office in terms of what we can do.”

Paul also addressed her work as Berwyn’s city clerk, who also serves as the city’s Freedom of Information Act officer. Since Paul was elected, her office has processed 700 FOIA requests, she said.

Romulo asked why she had to file a FOIA simply to get a list of candidates running for office, public information most other cities routinely post on their social media.

“One of the things we have made sure we do is treat everyone on an equal footing,” Paul said. “We have some aldermen in city of Berwyn--usually they say that when you’re an alderman, you have access to every record we have in the city, right? There are some departments that will try to obstruct aldermen getting the records they’re looking for.

“So, I have told them that once you file a FOIA, the clock starts running. We have five business days to provide you those records, or get a five-day extension to get them to you. In that way, we have a legitimate way to put pressure on different departments to make sure those records are provided. I make sure that rule is done fairly across the board. Everybody puts in a request for a record.”

“As city clerk, you really can’t root out corruption,” she said in response to a different query. “But you can make sure you conduct the office as ethically as you possibly can and making sure that those Sunshine Laws are thoroughly adhered to by all city departments.”

Sunshine Laws are those that, like the FOIA, spell out the public’s right to access to governmental records.

“When people can see how meetings are conducted and they can get their hands on the records they need that roots out corruption. Open the blinds and let people see what their government is doing,” she said.