Prolific freedom of information filers try to shed some light
By Lauren FitzPatrick and Steve Metsch firstname.lastname@example.org@southtownstar.com April 11, 2011 6:38PM
Robert McCoy shows one of the 85 freedom of information requests he has made to Chicago Heights in Chicago Heights on Wednesday, March 16, 2011. | Art Vassy~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 23, 2012 2:11AM
Their names are well-known to village clerks. Their freedom of information requests pile up. They consider themselves active members of society, self-appointed watchdogs who want to know how their tax money’s being spent. Some share the data with others, some use it for lawsuits, some simply want to keep a watchful eye on government and understand how their tax dollars are being spent.
Mostly, they just want to know.
Take Robert McCoy, one of the most prolific filers of Freedom of Information Act requests in the Southland.
In 12 months, McCoy filed 85 FOI requests at the Chicago Heights City Hall, according to a SouthtownStar analysis. McCoy, who ran for alderman and lost in last week’s election, said the FOI law is a tool that helps citizens learn about a community by allowing them access to public records.
And, despite not winning election, McCoy has no plans to stop filing them.
“In fact, I’m on my way to file two more,” he said last week. “I was doing this for a long time before the election. I’m not a politician. I’m an activist who ran for office who tried to make changes from the outside. I’m still on the outside. But I’m not going to stop.”
His requests cover nearly every part of city government, be it garbage contracts, water bills, pension funds or police reports.
“You need to know what’s going on,” McCoy said. “You’ve got to keep tabs on whoever is in office. They say they’ll make good on their promises. You’ve got to keep them to their promises.”
While campaigning for the April 5 election, McCoy spent 10 hours over three days going door to door in the 1st Ward.
“In those 10 hours, I didn’t see one police car,” said McCoy, who knew, thanks to an earlier request, that side of town had the most police reports the previous year.
McCoy voiced his concerns at a recent city council meeting. A few days later, “I saw four police cars in two hours,” he said. “So, literally, the Freedom of Information Act changed that dynamic instantly. I shed the light on them.”
Tinley Park attorney Stephen Eberhardt says he, too, likes to shed light on government. He makes frequent FOI requests at the village hall on a wide range of topics.
He’s requested information on vehicles issued to village employees, budgets and development agreements, to name a few.
The latest that had village officials’ heads shaking was his request for the call records of village-issued cell phones.
Village officials weren’t happy; compiling the numbers took a long time.
But Eberhardt says he didn’t care one bit.
“I want to know what they are doing on the taxpayers’ dime. Let’s put it this way. These are tough times,” Eberhardt said. “If they are using the phones to make personal calls on the taxpayers’ dime, is that warranted?”
Unlike McCoy, he did not run for office.
“I like my job as an attorney, but I think the public is entitled to know who their money is being spent,” Eberhardt said.
Tinley Park arguably has been the most vocal Southland village in terms of complaining about demands on staff’s time because of freedom of information requests. Beginning this month, the village is posting online the names of people who submit freedom of information requests, what they’re looking for and how much time and cost went into fulfilling them.
“They make it difficult sometimes. You’ve got to be very specific in what you request,” Eberhardt said.
Myrna Jurcev, chair of Oak Lawn Tax Watch, started poking around in Oak Lawn’s bills years during the 1990s when she and her lady friends from a weekday bowling league started wondering why new condos were going in at the village’s downtown.
Jurcev’s now a regular filer of FOI requests.
The worst she can say is they’re expensive. But it’s not like the village is gouging her. She’s just looking for giant files of thorough records.
Recently, her group requested the village’s four years worth of legal bills from 2007 through 2010. The copies, at 15 cents a page, ran to $112.
“From the get-go, we were a very disappointed group of women about how they wanted to change the space of town center and put condos up,” she said. “We started to get a little proactive with that.”
Then they took on a special taxing district where Kmart stands near 111th Street and Cicero Avenue. Then the village purchased Edgar Funeral Home a few years ago at 109th Street and Cicero for $2.5 million.
“The frosting was on the cake two years ago when they bought the funeral home,” she said.
She counts her reporting on the funeral home among her proudest accomplishments.
“We also did blow the whistle that they were not collecting the agreed-upon money that Target was going to reimburse the village for allowing the parking,” she said.
She’s referring to a deal with Target in which the village had to borrow $4 million and buy a parking lot at the new store, 4120 95th St., to use as a municipal lot, which would be paid back by a special half-cent tax on the store’s sales. The store opened in 2007; the company finally cut a check in 2010.
Jurcev isn’t running for office, either. She insists her group isn’t political, only that it stands for efficient government.
And she’s a taxpayer with some time on her hands — now that she’s retired — eager to use her time to make sure her village leaders are doing what they’re supposed to.
Her lone frustration though is that her group’s revelations don’t seem to effect much change.
“The moral of the story is you could FOIA to your heart’s content, but where does it go?” she said. “It doesn’t go anywhere.”
McCoy wishes more citizens would keep tabs on their local governments and utilize the Freedom of Information Act to obtain public records.
“People need to go to their council meetings or view it on cable. They need to ask questions about issues in their community. And they need to use the Freedom of Information Act to confirm or deny what they think is happening,” McCoy said. “To me this is the last vestige of democracy. Without the information, you’re just whistling Dixie. The power of the Freedom of Information Act is you no longer have to go on assumptions.”
Asked if every town needed someone like him, McCoy laughed.
“There are some who will tell you they don’t want anybody like me,” he said. “They don’t want more of me. They want less. But ignorance is not bliss.”