College Town Partners a litmus test for transparency

Rants and Raves of Mac McIntyre
Rants and Raves of Mac McIntyre

The City of DeKalb or NIU weren’t ever really part of College Town Partners named in unsigned documents obtained through FOIA requests by District 7 County Board member Misty Haji-Sheikh and the Daily Chronicle. According to Mayor John Rey, “informal conversations have been held and that’s it.”

NIU officials said they have backed away from the partnership, although discussions are continuing.

According to a memo dated March 20, the informally proposed partnership between NIU, DeKalb, First State Bank (a sister company of Castle Bank) and Steve Irving of Irving Construction would purchase properties in a low-to-moderate income tract to be rented to individuals including students, improve infrastructure and mitigate flooding from the west side of Harrison Street, including John Street, to the Kishwaukee River.

The redevelopment plans were aimed at creating a “physical connection between NIU, the Historic District, and downtown DeKalb to improve the tax base and quality of community life.”

According to the memo, NIU and the city of DeKalb each would contribute $250,000; First State Bank, which owns the mortgages for some properties in the neighborhood that are in foreclosure, would contribute $250,000; First National Nebraska Community Development Corporation, a branch of Castle Bank’s parent company specializing in redevelopment projects, would contribute $500,000; and Irving would contribute $100,000. — Daily Chronicle

On May 22, in a follow-up FOIA request Misty Haji-Sheikh, who is also a founder of the Preserve Our Neighborhood citizen group, asked for copies of all signed documents pertaining to College Town Partners LLC, all contracts pertaining to College Town Partners LLC, all recordings pertaining to money spent or allocated to College Town Partners LLC or any similar entity that has ties to the Ellwood Historic Neighborhood Area.

The City of DeKalb chose not to fulfill the FOIA request claiming the documents requested were exempt from inspection or copying under Section 7(1)(f) of the Freedom of Information Act (5 ILCS 140) “[p]reliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda and other records in which opinions are expressed, or policies or actions are formulated, except that a specific record or relevant portion of a record shall not be exemption when the record is publicly cited and identified by the head of the public body.”

Haji-Sheikh requested all signed documents.

She filed a formal request for review with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s Public Access Bureau.

On July 11 the Office of the Attorney General informed the City of DeKalb and Haji-Sheikh of its determination that further inquiry into the matter was necessary to confirm that the City has complied with its obligations under FOIA. The City of DeKalb was to provide written explanation of the receipt and handling of  Haji-Sheikh’s FOIA request, including the searches conducted and efforts taken in locating responsive records along with a detailed description of the factual and legal basis for the City’s assertion of the section 7(1)(f) exemption.

On July 25, Christopher Boggs an Assistant Attorney General with the Public Access Bureau notified Haji-Sheikh of the response from the City of DeKalb. The City requested that the entire response provided to the Public Access Counselor remain confidential and withheld from disclosure.

If she chooses to reply she must submit the reply within seven days of the receipt of a July 25 letter and she must send a copy of her reply to the City.

Someone needs to talk with Boggs’s supervisor. Is the Public Access Bureau devoted to transparency or created for votes? And while we’re at it let’s ask a similar question of Mayor John Rey. Transparency or not?

Section 7(1)(f) grants exemptions for drafts, notes, recommendations, etc. from public disclosure. Nowhere in the entire FOIA code does it grant confidentiality to a unit of government for an explanation for not fulfilling a FOIA request. That’s obsurd.

Perhaps this issue belongs in the courts.

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