By CHRISTOPHER HEIMERMAN
For Illinois Press Association
PINCKNEYVILLE – Sometimes, you have to scribble your Freedom of Information Act request on whatever’s handy.
For Jeff Egbert, publisher of the Pinckneyville Press, that was the back of the printed agenda for the May 28 meeting of the local high school board.
The board, as ordered by the Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor’s Office, had just voted to serve a social studies teacher with a notice to remedy – meaning the board had determined the teacher had done something that needed to be remedied.
It was the second time this year the Pinckneyville Community High School District board had taken the vote. The first vote, in January, was voided by the PAC’s binding opinion dated May 17 that the board had violated the Open Meetings Act when it failed to adequately explain what it had discussed in closed session and then voted on in open session.
The rare binding ruling from the PAC was the result of a complaint Egbert filed when the board did not disclose what the teacher had done to warrant a process that could lead to job loss.
Still, when the board voted again in May, it continued to refuse to disclose to Egbert what the teacher had done to warrant the discipline.
“They just stared at me, just shot daggers at me, and went forward with their vote,” Egbert said. “So I turned the FOIA in before I left [the meeting]. I actually wrote it on the back of the meeting agenda.”
The PAC wasn’t needed this time, however.
Egbert received a response to his FOIA request a few days later. The teacher, Robert Simpson, had missed numerous days of work - many without calling in. After the teacher resigned, Egbert said, the Pinckneyville Police Department put out a news release saying Simpson had been picked up at a local hotel on a Jackson County warrant for meth charges.
That’s the sort of stuff the public needs to know, Egbert said.
“In all honesty, I didn’t want to write about this,” he said. “I thought it would be one story, one-and-done and over. In my mind, I was trying to save [the board] from themselves, but they wouldn’t listen, so I turned them in to the AG.”
The school board’s president, Greg Thompson, deferred to the board’s attorney, Stuart Morgenstern, who also declined to comment for this story. Superintendent Keith Hagene did not return messages left requesting comment.
Transparency ‘a constant source of aggravation’
The PAC office handles, on average, about 4,000 requests for review each year, about 10 percent of them regarding OMA violations.
Lack of staff means far too many cases don’t get fully investigated, let alone result in a binding opinion, according to attorney Don Craven, who represents the Illinois Press Association and its member newspapers.
“They don’t weight in with binding opinions nearly as often as I’d like, but it’s a matter of people,” Craven said.
He said virtually every case that results in a binding opinion requires an extension beyond the 60-day limit the PAC has to investigate – as was necessary in Egbert’s case. Often, those who file requests end up resorting to filing lawsuits because the process gets drawn out too long, with cases collecting dust in attorneys’ and counselors’ backlogs.
In each of the nine years since the PAC was formed, more than three-quarters of the requests for review have been filed by members of the public. So it isn’t just journalists who see their pursuits of the truth languish.
“Government is supposed to be open, and people are supposed to be able to understand what the hell it is their public bodies are doing,” Craven said. “It’s public business, not private business.”
Egbert is grateful for the PAC’s swift action in his case – after he gave the school board a month to turn over the resolution discussed in closed session. It didn’t deliver, so he enlisted the PAC.
“I can’t say a bad word about the PAC in this case,” he said. “The light was shined in this case because of the Public Access Counselor.”
Egbert said at their roots, the many FOIA requests he’s filed are not only about shedding light on malpractice, but even saving public bodies from themselves.
“They sure didn’t thank me,” he said of the school board, laughing. “I thought maybe they’d thank me for helping them do things right, but no.”
A binding opinion’s fallout
Craven said he’s grateful for a state full of journalists who doggedly pursue the truth and transparency.
“I deal with journalists day in and day out who are continuing the fight,” he said.
He said if public bodies simply followed the rules and didn’t hide information, it would save everyone a lot of stress and time.
“How much a public body has to say when it comes out of closed session, and how much they have to explain to the public on what they’re doing, is a constant source of aggravation – probably on both sides of the table,” he said.
Egbert, who was born and raised in Pinckneyville, said he never set out to be a watchdog in his community of just more than 5,000 people – until he started asking more questions and getting fewer answers.
“I’m related to half the town, and sometimes I have to write about friends and family; that can be stressful,” Egbert said “I didn’t really start the paper with this [mentality]. I asked what I thought were fair questions with the leaders in the county and the city. Roadblocks were automatically thrown up. I just thought it was really odd.”
He said apart from the resulting tension with members of public bodies, some remain bitter enough to pull advertising. For example, he said the board’s president, Thompson, also a local Country Financial agent, told Egbert he will no longer buy advertising in the Press.
“There’s a lot of bitterness over this binding opinion, and if they’d only done things right from the start, none of this would’ve been necessary,” Egbert said.
“None of this is personal.”