Ford-Iroquois Public Health Department asked to respond to info request

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois attorney general's office is asking the Ford-Iroquois Public Health Department to respond to a Ford County newspaper's claim that the agency improperly denied an open-records request last month.

The Paxton Record filed a request under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act on May 20, seeking the release of the audio recording of the board of health's May 20 closed session.

The FOIA request was filed after the health department's attorney, Jim Devine, acknowledged that discussions in closed session were not related to the Open Meetings Act exemption the board cited to enter executive session.

After the Paxton Record's FOIA request was denied — with no reason given — the newspaper filed a "request for review" with the Public Access Bureau of the Illinois attorney general's office on Wednesday.

In its request for review, the Paxton Record said the health department failed to state the reason for denying the FOIA request, as required by law. The Paxton Record said the health department failed to inform the newspaper of its right to a review by the attorney general's office and failed to provide the address and phone number of the Public Access Bureau, as required by the law.

On Friday, Matt Hartman, an assistant attorney general in the Public Access Bureau, informed the health department's FOIA officer, Julie Clark, that "further action is warranted."

Hartman's letter asked the health department to provide the attorney general's office with an explanation for denying the FOIA request. Also, if the health department believes the audio recording is exempt from disclosure, the agency should provide copies of records to be reviewed, along with a written explanation identifying the applicable exemption and a "detailed factual basis for its application."

The health department also is asked to respond to the allegation that it did not notify the Paxton Record of its right to a review by the attorney general's office or provide the office's phone number and address.

The attorney general's office asked the health department to provide all the requested information within seven working days of receiving the letter.

Devine, who is the Iroquois County state's attorney, did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment Friday.

The board of health met for two hours in closed session on May 20. Both the meeting's agenda, as well as the verbal motion to enter executive session, had called for a closed session to discuss "a reasonable potential danger to the safety of employees, staff, the public or public/private property."

However, Devine acknowledged after the meeting that the "discipline of employees" had been discussed during the closed meeting.

Discussion of the discipline of employees is permitted in closed session, but only if the applicable exemption is cited first in open session.

Following the closed meeting, the board voted unanimously to suspend Public Health Administrator Doug Corbett's authority to hire, fire, reassign or discipline his employees. The board also voted unanimously to draft a letter to all health department employees in order to "better evaluate" their work environment, morale and goals. Those actions were not listed on the meeting's agenda.

The Paxton Record has also asked the attorney general's office to review the legality of the closed session itself, but the newspaper had not received a response as of Friday afternoon.

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