Court weighs requiring council to release texts
News-Gazette seeks records to see if officials are talking covertly during meetings
SPRINGFIELD — A legal dispute between the city of Champaign and The News-Gazette over whether text messages and emails sent and received by city council members during council meetings are subject to the state's Freedom of Information Act moved to the state appellate court Wednesday.
And that may not be its last stop.
A three-judge Fourth District Appellate Court panel heard arguments on the case for 45 minutes Wednesday morning, then adjourned and took the case under advisement.
The court likely will issue a decision later this year, but attorneys for both sides agreed that the case could end up in the Illinois Supreme Court.
The issue already has gone to Attorney General Lisa Madigan's public access counselor, and the Sangamon County Court, both of which ruled in The News-Gazette's favor. The circuit court decision was appealed by the city of Champaign.
The dispute, which goes back almost two years, began when News-Gazette reporter Patrick Wade filed a Freedom of Information Act request for electronic records sent and received by Champaign City Council members during council meetings.
Wednesday's arguments, held before Justices Thomas Appleton, M. Carol Pope and Lisa Holder White, generally were about whether electronic messages to and from individual council members' personal devices were public records under the Freedom of Information Act.
Laura Hall, an attorney for the city, argued that only records in the custody of the public body could be considered public records. She said that "a lot of energy was spent trying to turn a council member into a public body."
But Appleton interrupted and expressed concern about "pre-vote discussions by text" between council members.
"What if it's not being done publicly; it's being done by text message?" Appleton asked.
"I don't know how to answer that," Hall said.
Several times Pope suggested that the best outcome would be a legislative solution, either by individual city governments or by the General Assembly.
"Can you just advise your client to stop it?" she told Hall.
Later, she asked Clifford Berlow, representing Attorney General Lisa Madigan, "Isn't the issue that the Legislature needs to fix this? The Legislature determines the policy. That's their job."
Hall said that texting and emailing during meetings by council members is "boorish" and "profoundly disrespectful," but there was "no nexus" to the public body.
A second issue, addressed briefly during the session, was whether The News-Gazette was entitled to a counterclaim for attorney's fees from the city for costs incurred in the circuit court case.