Are transcripts public record? It’s unclear
Credit: BY DAVID GIULIANI | www.saukvalley.com 24 August 2012 ~~
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DIXON – Whiteside County had no issue with releasing transcripts for its wind farm hearings – it posted them online.
Lee County, however, is giving conflicting signals.
The Lee County state’s attorney is directing residents to a private company that was hired to make the transcripts. The cost per page: $2.50.
It would cost more than $1,000 to get copies of all the transcripts so far.
Since July, the Lee County Zoning Board of Appeals has had four hearings on a plan by Ireland-based Mainstream Renewable Power to build 53 turbines in the southwestern part of the county.
On Aug. 9, attorney Frances Mitchell, who represents resident Roseann Para, asked for the hearing transcripts, citing the state Freedom of Information Act. Four days later, Lee County State’s Attorney Henry Dixon denied the request.
Mitchell is appealing Dixon’s denial to the state’s attorney general.
In a letter to Mitchell, Dixon justified his denial by citing the county code and the zoning board’s rules of procedure, but he didn’t specify which provisions. Neither appears to address the release of transcripts.
Dixon said in his letter that the hearing minutes would be available once the zoning board finishes the public hearing process. He didn’t specifically address when transcripts would be released.
Mitchell asked for the transcripts, not the minutes. The minutes are a summary of meetings; transcripts include all that is said, word for word.
“You and your client obviously don’t know the difference between minutes of a meeting and a transcript of a hearing,” Dixon wrote. “There is a difference.”
But Lee County’s zoning administrator, Chris Henkel, said the zoning board will vote at its Sept. 4 meeting on whether to adopt the transcripts as minutes.
If they’re approved, they’ll go on the website as soon as possible, he said.
Meanwhile, Henkel said he had let residents read the transcripts in his office at the Old Lee County Courthouse. “If Roseann [Para] wanted to look at them, I would let her,” he said.
State law allows public bodies to keep minutes secret until 10 days after they’re approved, although nothing bars agencies from releasing them before approval, as entities often do. In fact, Lee County often has released zoning board minutes before they are approved.
Dixon, however, advised Mitchell to order transcripts from court reporter Doris Kennay of Accurate Court Reporting. He noted attorney Rick Porter, who represents residents opposed to the wind farm, and Mainstream attorney Doug Lee already had done so.
“Of course, you’ll have to pay for them just like Messrs. Porter and Lee did,” Dixon wrote.
Asked for the costs, Kennay at first told Sauk Valley Media to call the county. When told that the state’s attorney advised people to contact her, she gave the $2.50-a-page price. She said the transcript is 403 pages; she has worked at three of the four meetings.
Whiteside County had five hearings from early April to late May for Mainstream’s proposal for nine turbines in the southeastern part of the county. The transcript for the first hearing went online about a month afterward. With each meeting, the county posted the transcripts sooner, with the last one online in a week.
“We put them up as soon as we got them,” said Stuart Richter, Whiteside County’s zoning administrator.
He said he saw no reason to withhold the transcripts from the public.
For hard copies, Whiteside County follows the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, charging 15 cents a page, with the first 50 pages free. With a 15-cent charge, Lee County’s transcripts would cost $52.95, far less than what the transcriber is charging.
In her appeal to the attorney general, Mitchell said it’s important to post the transcripts because some interested residents cannot attend all meetings.
“We all need access to the record as it progresses,” Mitchell wrote. “These are not ‘minutes’ nor does the county require minutes of public meetings be approved before they are posted to the website.”
She also said the county could avoid repetitive questions of witnesses – a problem the hearing facilitator has complained about – if it posted the transcripts online.
“Citizens need to have access to the transcripts in order to pose meaningful questions and follow-up questions,” Mitchell said.
In a letter to Sauk Valley Media, Dixon said the Freedom of Information Act does not apply because Mainstream, Porter’s clients or both had paid for the transcriber service.
“The transcript is not a County Board record,” Dixon said.
Dixon did not say in the letter whether the Freedom of Information Act applied once documents were in the county’s custody, as the transcripts are.
Dixon did not answer a request for a phone interview.
The attorney general’s next step is to determine whether further action is warranted on Mitchell’s request. If it makes such a finding, the agency will seek a response from Lee County.
The attorney general could issue an opinion in the matter.
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