PEORIA – Peoria County needs to explain why information about potential indoor restaurant rule violations is not being made public, an Illinois Press Association attorney said.
Don Craven, who worked with the state’s Freedom of Information Act for years, said that it is not the responsibility of the media or the public to explain why they want the records, but rather that the county itself says why the records are not made public should be. And the Springfield attorney explained why there may be a “jumble” of practices across the state.
His comments come after Peoria County officials earlier this month denied both a Journal Star reporter’s request and the paper’s filing of a Freedom of Information Act searching for the names of restaurants and bars used by citizens in the They were submitted as part of the Department of Health’s complaints process and whether they received quotes from the Health Department or referred to Prosecutor Jodi Hoos to enforce closure orders.
Other counties have posted information on these topics online or detailed the identification or citation process for local media.
On site, however, there was no response beyond that “the county is considering these active investigations and accordingly rejects this request for the submission of documents in connection with these investigations under 5 ILCS 14017 (d),” said the Peoria County Public Prosecutor in his response to the FOIA last week.
Craven said that was not enough.
“It is now the responsibility of the county to either provide the documents or obtain an exemption from disclosing the documents. And they must provide a detailed, legal and factual basis as to why they are withholding the documents.
The only thing they say is they are holding back due to an active investigation.
“That’s not enough,” said the lawyer.
The FOIA exemption used by the county states in part that records may be refused publication if such release would “disrupt pending or actual and reasonably contemplated law enforcement proceedings being conducted by any law enforcement or law enforcement agency that the Recipient of the request. “
Earlier this month, Hoos said her office was “looking at complaints on a case-by-case basis, using the facts and the law” when asked directly if she would commit to pursuing cases where she found violating COVID restrictions were. In addition, she will not comment on upcoming investigations.
The paper appeals for the county’s refusal to forward records to the Public Access Counselor in the Illinois Attorney General.
At a weekly press conference on Thursday, Monica Hendrickson, Administrator of the Peoria City, County Health Department, was asked again about the total number of violations in her office and the number of quotes issued by the health department.
“I can’t talk about how many, the exact number we had. I can say that whenever we receive a complaint through our Restore HOI (website), we immediately work with an agency that has the most direct contact and then we refer them to it and also make educational points with them, and then when we have additional complaints with them we start publishing additional ones [complaints]. And the last communication we make, then we refer you to the prosecutor, “she replied to this question.
A little over two weeks ago, Hendrickson said the RestoreHOI.com website had received more than 100 complaints.
Pressed on Thursday’s issue, she was asked if there was an updated number she could provide.
“I don’t have the number with me,” she said.
Craven said that was not appropriate, and he said that if an agency is concerned about publishing a name, editing is an option.
“It’s easy to edit, like obscuring someone’s Social Security number on a police report. It’s done every day. It’s not enough to just say there’s an ongoing investigation … you can withhold information, but.. only to the extent that such disclosure would interfere with active investigation. “
The attorney admitted, “The release of the documents through the FOIA has been a mess across the state while I’ve been doing this job.”
More:More than 100 COVID restriction complaints have been received in the Peoria area since early November
More:Peoria prosecutors pledge to apply the COVID-19 Violation Act but say little else
It can vary from city to city and from county to county. This explains why the Winnebago County Health Department published the names of the companies and how many times they were quoted on their website. In Sangamon County, the local prosecutor filed against a handful of restaurants or taverns to enforce compliance. And in McLean County, the ordinary city council was considering passing a law enforcing the restrictions.
“It varies from city to city and within counties. It depends on the political orientation of the people who make the decisions,” Craven said. “When it comes to COVID mitigation, there are some people in this state who don’t see it in their political self-interest to enforce this mitigation. They would soon suppress any discussion of who might be involved in violating these restrictions.
“If there was a discussion about it, there might be some pressure to get this through and they don’t want that,” he added.