Tinley Park clerk: Mayoral candidate’s FOIA requests costly for village
Less than two months before the municipal election, Tinley Park released information last week claiming mayoral challenger Steve Eberhardt has filed the largest number of Freedom of Information Act requests in town — costing the village thousands of dollars in time and effort.
Eberhardt’s 21 requests since January 2012 — including three last month — have cost the village nearly $20,000 in salary paid to employees working on fulfilling his document requests rather than doing something else, village clerk Pat Rea said. Rea released his report on FOIA requests at a village board committee meeting.
While Eberhardt questions the report’s timing, Rea said it had nothing to do with his challenge to longtime Mayor Ed Zabrocki. Rather, it was based on timeliness, Rea said.
“This is something we’ve been doing since 2010,” Rea said. “This is not something we put together in order to harass Steve. It’s to find out what we spend.”
Aimed at ensuring government openness, the Illinois Freedom of Information Act — or FOIA — allows citizens to obtain or review certain government records upon request. Some records are exempt from public disclosure.
Rea said he determined a cost to the village based on each employee’s salary and time spent fulfilling each FOIA request. Rea, a former village trustee and a good friend of Zabrocki, said the FOIA report was simply overdue.
Most of Eberhardt’s FOIA requests, Rea said, are of the “sweep” variety, which blanket much of village government. Fulfilling such requests gobbles up time, Rea said. According to his figures, answering 21 “sweep” FOIAs by all filers cost an average of $552 each while the 354 “focused” FOIAs cost an average of $13.
Eberhardt ally Karen Weigand, one of three candidates challenging incumbent trustees, said: “People have a right to know what’s going on, and, unfortunately it costs the village some money to do that.”
Eberhardt said he has no plans to slow down.
“If it costs $8,000 a month to let the people of Tinley Park know where their money is being wasted, it’s the duty of government to let people know how they’re spending their money,” Eberhardt said.
According to Rea’s report, Eberhardt’s 18 FOIA requests last year cost the village $9,212. That accounted for 57 percent of village costs for all FOIAs received. Overall, the village received 375 requests, a tally Rea estimated cost the village $16,120 in response time.
Eberhardt’s FOIA costs last month — $9,390 — already surpassed his total for the entire previous year and represents 91 percent of the village’s total FOIA costs last month, Rea said.
Eberhardt’s January FOIA requests led to him filing a complaint with the state election board claiming, among other things, that Zabrocki’s secretary had sent campaign-related emails on village time. That led to a closed-door hearing Thursday about the issue.
“They filed a response to allegations in the complaint. We tried to work things out,” Eberhardt said. Zabrocki declined comment.
Nevertheless, the village clerk’s office would be hampered in fulfilling its other duties if that pace keeps up all year, Rea said.
“We’re not budgeted for something like that,” Rea said.
Still, releasing such a report two months before the election seemed odd to David Morrison, acting director of the Chicago-based watchdog group Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
“Local elections are often the nastiest because they’re neighbor vs. neighbor,” Morrison said. “The stakes are low, but there’s a lot invested in these. They can get quite bitter.”
State law allows government agencies to take more time in fulfilling the requests of frequent FOIA requestors, Morrison said.
Rea said he doubts any fallout from the FOIA report would help or hurt either mayoral candidate.
“If Eddie is alive,” he said, “Eddie will win.”