Why are Oak Lawn manager Larry Deetjen and village attorney Paul O’Grady fighting so hard to keep certain emails they exchanged hidden from board members? They have been asked seven times by elected board members to turn over these emails, but refuse to turn them over.
For some reason, now the mayor and certain trustees are helping them keep these records secret. At the last board meeting, [Mayor] Sandra Bury cast the deciding vote to keep these records hidden from other elected trustees.
O’Grady’s law firm has been paid $3 million over the past three years and Deetjen over $500,000. These are not personnel files or personal records. These are emails about village business on an email network owned by taxpayers. They both charged taxpayers for the time they spent creating those emails. The Attorney General has made it clear that emails on a municipality’s email network are public records. Despite this, they are now allowed to block access to their own emails on the village network?
Here is what happened.
Back in May when I was still in office, I asked for certain email records between Larry Deetjen and the village attorneys because I had received multiple complaints that Deetjen improperly interfered with a million dollar contract an Oak Lawn business had with a prospective tenant, possibly for racial reasons.
I was shocked when a village employee told me that Deetjen and O’Grady stepped in and told him not to turn over their records to me because the manager and attorney have no authority over a mayor when it comes to inspection of records. Mayors have a statutory right to inspect records under Illinois law and, in Oak Lawn, also under the village code. That law had always been followed the prior eight years. I guess they felt they could get away with not following that law because I had lost the election. I did tell the attorney and manager that they were breaking the law and violating our code and made a second request, but that was ignored.
I don’t think we should look the other way when the village manager and attorney break the law. But that’s not why I write. The point is that records should not be kept from board members. Those are the elected representatives of residents, and if the manager is accused of harming an Oak Lawn business, the board not only has every right to, but should investigate this.
After my requests were blocked, new requests were made for these records in May by a sitting trustee. While there is no law which would permit the manager to deny a trustee access to these records, or give the manager authority to block access, he did it again.
Attorney O’Grady then issued a legal opinion in early June which stated that the mayor has the right to inspect all records, basically acknowledging that he advised the village to break the law when denying me access.
After receiving that memo, Sandra Bury could easily have said to turn over the records. That was June. Nothing was turned over. Why not? Did it matter that the trustees seeking records had opposed her in the last election?
Then a trustee tried another legal means and submitted a FOIA request to Village Clerk Jane Quinlan for those records. This was the fourth request. That was denied. The clerk’s office said it was too burdensome even though staff previously told me it’s quite simple to do. Apparently this burdensome argument came from their belief that the village attorney should be paid to review and screen his own emails (which he already charged for once) before turning them over to the board that hired him.
The same trustee submitted a second FOIA, and the clerk’s office refused to turn over all records, this time claiming attorney client privilege. So now Sandra Bury, Jane Quinlan and Larry Deetjen are the client (because they can see the records), but other trustees are not? Does it seem fair that only certain officials — the mayor, clerk, manager, attorney — have the privilege of seeing records, while others elected by the same residents do not? I had disagreements at times with trustees, but I said publicly at the board table that all trustees should always be allowed access to records.
After five efforts had been blocked, two trustees placed on a board agenda an item amending the village code to clarify that all trustees have the right to inspect village records, not just the mayor. The board majority and Sandra Bury denied these trustees the right to even speak on the issue at the board meeting, in clear violation of Roberts Rules of Order. Despite the improper motion, the attorney said nothing. After all, it was his records that were being sought. This was the sixth effort blocked.
Then there was the seventh effort, again a request to amend the code to allow the elected representatives of Oak Lawn the right to review records of the village. Sandra Bury voted no. She and the majority voted to keep Deetjen’s emails hidden from trustees.
If the manager is working only for the betterment of the community, why would he care about trustees seeing his emails with the attorney?
The manager and attorney are on the same political side as the mayor. The attorney contributed to her political team. Now, when records are sought because an Oak Lawn business makes a serious allegation of misconduct, the mayor and board votes to keep the manager’s emails on the village network hidden from other elected officials? Isn’t there a duty to investigate the complaint openly and thoroughly?
The election is over. But what comes with that is the responsibility of those who are elected into office to follow the law. You are now accountable, and even though others may not be in the majority or even in office, it does not mean that we lose the right to stand up for what we believe is right. Whether or not I’m in office, I do still care about the community.
Dave Heilmann was the Oak Lawn mayor for eight years before he was defeated by Sandra Bury in April.