DeWayne's World - How a story got started

Staff Writer
Woodford Times

An unknown author once said, “Freedom is a package deal — with it comes responsibilities and consequences.”

That quote comes to mind as I consider how this investigation into compliance with the state’s Freedom of Information Act got started.

Being new to Woodford County the first time I went to a Metamora Village Board meeting I did not want to cause a scene.

So, I smiled and walked away when told I could not have a document discussed in the meeting unless the mayor gave his OK.

I had seen this before in other towns.  

I knew I had the right to the information regardless of what the mayor said. But, I played nice.

That routine kept up for a couple more meetings.

It was wearing on me because I knew the law. I knew this could not be done. I also knew a lot of other people, who did not know the law, could be denied information they had every right to possess.

I had a responsibility to stand up against this, regardless of what the consequences might be.

So, one Tuesday night, earlier this summer, when I was at a meeting of the Metamora Village Board I decided the time to stop playing nice had arrived.

Mayor William Belshaw was absent.

Prior to the meeting Mayor Pro Tem John Heinz entertained some questions I had about the proposed social hosting ordinance on the agenda for discussion that night.

The proposed ordinance would really slap people economically who hosted parties where underage drinking or drug use was uncovered.

It seemed like an issue worthy of coverage.

Heinz was polite and helpful.

As the meeting progressed Heinz announced the mayor had questions about the ordinance and discussion was going to be held off until the mayor returned. But, an audience member asked some questions about the proposed ordinance.

Heinz and another trustee addressed the resident’s questions.

After the meeting I asked Heinz for a copy of the draft of the social hosting ordinance the village board had in its possession — the very ordinance they had discussed in an open meeting moments before.

“I’m not going to release a copy until it’s approved,” Heinz said.

I had been expecting that.

Being very familiar with the state’s new Freedom of Information Act I asked Heinz what exemption under the Freedom of Information Act he was imposing to deny me the document.

He looked puzzled.

Heinz called over Mike Tibbs, the village attorney.

I asked him for a copy. He said, “No.” I asked him what exemption under the Freedom of Information Act he was imposing to deny me the document  

“We just don’t do that here,” he said, referring to giving anyone a copy of a draft ordinance prior to passage.

I guess that had been sufficient in the past to turn away requests for information.

But, I was done being a sheep.

I asked Tibbs for his office number. He wanted to know why. I told him I would be contacting the Illinois Attorney General’s Office the following morning and that the public access counselor would probably want to talk to him.

He smiled and gave me the number.

When I explained the situation to Cara Smith, the attorney general’s public access counselor, she said exactly what I expected — “They can’t do that.”

She asked for the attorney’s number and said I would hear from her.

A few days later a copy of the draft of the social hosting ordinance arrived in the mail.

I don’t tell that story to lord it over the public officials of Metamora.

I did not instigate this investigation into the lack of compliance with the state’s Freedom of Information Act to make public officials look dumb or crooked.

I think the public officials I have met so far are sharp and committed.

But, many are not following the law.

If the press is going to fulfill it’s responsibility as a watchdog of government situations like this have to be brought out.  

DeWayne Bartels is news editor of the Woodford Times.