DIXON – Lee County State’s Attorney Henry Dixon improperly denied a request for public records, the state attorney general’s office says.
In an Oct. 17 opinion, Assistant Attorney General Steve Silverman said the state Freedom of Information Act required Dixon to divulge the transcripts for wind farm hearings in July and August.
In his original denial, Dixon advised the requester, Frances Mitchell, to go to a private court reporter hired to do the transcripts and pay for the documents. The reporter charges $2.50 a page, far higher than what the Freedom of Information Act allows for government agencies to charge for documents – free for the first 50 pages and 15 cents a page thereafter.
With the number of pages involved, the reporter would have charged well over $1,000.
In Whiteside County, the transcripts for wind farm hearings never were an issue. As soon as the county received the documents, it posted then online.
After getting Mitchell’s complaint in August, the attorney general’s office sought Dixon’s response. It asked that he cite a specific provision in the Freedom of Information Act that allowed him to deny access to the records.
Dixon defended his decision, but cited no specific provision, as the attorney general noted in the Oct. 17 opinion.
Dixon didn’t return messages for comment.
‘Touchiness on such matters’
In his 3-page Aug. 31 letter, Dixon said he didn’t give a detailed explanation for his denial because Mitchell is a former assistant state’s attorney who advised the county. He said in previous litigation, Mitchell had taken offense when he pointed out things she already knew from her experience.
“I felt that Ms. Frances A.D. Mitchell might well think that I was being patronizing and demeaning if I were to spell everything out in the smallest detail,” Dixon said in the letter.
He said he was “always mindful of Ms. Mitchell’s touchiness on such matters.”
In his letter, Dixon said that in his “extensive” background in civil litigation, the “rule of thumb” was that deposition and hearing transcripts were the court reporter’s work product.
The reporter was hired by Doug Lee, an attorney for Mainstream Renewable Power, which is proposing 53 turbines for southwestern Lee County. The transcripts were given to the county’s zoning office.
In his letter, Dixon acknowledged that Chris Henkel, the county’s zoning officer, had been letting people read the transcripts. Henkel was doing so under the belief, based on the Freedom of Information Act, that the county should make public records available for inspection, Dixon said.
In September, the county decided to release the transcripts and post them on the Internet.
After she received Dixon’s response to the attorney general, Mitchell said Dixon’s response was typical of most of his letters.
“He starts out with an insult. Then he makes an argument that is either ridiculous or irrelevant,” she said. “He basically admitted he doesn’t have an exemption [to the Freedom of Information Act].”
Anna Sacco-Miller, Dixon’s Republican opponent in the Nov. 6 election, said recently that Dixon was wrong to deny access to the records. Once the transcripts are in the county’s possession, she said, they are public records.
In September and October, the county hasn’t received the transcripts from the court reporter, so the county has nothing to give to the public, officials say.
Other rebukes from attorney general
The recent attorney general’s letter was the third time in the last 2 years in which the agency has found Lee County on the wrong side of government openness laws.
Last year, the state attorney general found that the Lee County Board violated the state Open Meetings Act twice during an April 2011 meeting. At the meeting, the board voted to reduce its size from 28 to 24 members starting in 2012 and to fill an animal control vacancy.
Neither issue was on the agenda posted for the public.
For years, the board had left off its agendas issues it planned to vote upon, instead placing them deep inside the minutes of committee meetings.
Sauk Valley Media filed a complaint with the state attorney general.
In his response, Dixon said the committee minutes were enough to provide public notice.
He said that if the state mandated that every issue go on the agenda, “then you are telling the counties that citizens such as [the Sauk Valley Media reporter who filed the complaint] have absolutely no responsibility to review the committee reports wherein such actions and anticipated actions are stated.”
The attorney general disagreed, saying the county should take another vote on the issues, providing proper notice. The county followed that advice.
Also last year, the attorney general told the county it broke the Open Meetings Act by not allowing public input during the meetings of an ad hoc committee looking into wind farm issues.
Dixon defended the county’s policy.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding