Why We Fight For Access

The following is a story written by Patrick Boylan that reflects the importance of open meetings and respecting reporters’ rights and privileges.


His website is www.wellesparkbulldog.com.


And this is what we’ll be talking about at a workshop at noon Saturday, March 17, at Chicago Kent College of Law, 565 Adams, Room 580.




In fall 2011, The Bulldog decided to focus on Ravenswood area public schools as an editorial issue. The Dog already had established itself as a prep sports site, with coverage of five local high school teams in football and mens and womens hoops.

 

The new effort would build on this past success, leveraging the good will created by the preps coverage to challenge the management of schools.

 

Initially, as part of this effort, Patrick Boylan would attempt to attend at least one each of 16 Local School Councils and The Dog would build a data base of school LSC minutes.

 

Once that was accomplished, The Dog would extend, in the spring, to cover each LSC election in the 16 schools.

 

The Dog’s decision caused an immediate reaction at Trumbull School.

 

At an LSC meeting at Trumbull prior to Labor Day, the president of the LSC ordered Boylan to stop taking photos. The husband of the LSC President backed this up with a twenty yard rush on Boylan, stopping within inches of him.

 

In general, however, the presence of The Dog was welcomed.

 

A FOIA delivered to the main office of CPS in September requested some LSC records from the 16 schools. The FOIA was the product of collaboration between The Dog and Chicago Kent School of Law/ Center for Open Government. 

 

By mid- November Natalie Potts of Kent and Boylan had still not received a reply to the FOIA.

 

Boylan met with Ill. Rep. Ann Williams to discuss the situation. Williams read an internal document of CPS that Boylan had found and reviewed the state OMA. She recommended that Boylan make visits to the schools pointing to CPS policies that seemed to back unannounced visits in the case of the LSC elections.

 

In addition, she pointed out that OMA was probably more useful to The Dog in its attempts to gain access to LSC records than the FOIA.

 

Boylan and Potts decided to write the schools (letter attached) providing them notice of the purpose of the visits and the legal foundation for the request. The strategy outlined by Williams would be used this time.

 

In preparation for the visits Boylan contacted the National Lawyers Guild. If the schools refused to deliver the LSC minutes, Boylan would not leave the building, creating a case of civil disobedience.

 

The NLG sent Boylan to a video that taught him how to make the best arrest he could, if it came to that. And the NLG coordinated lightly as Boylan began his rounds.

 

In addition, Boylan contacted a representative of the Society for Professional Journalism/ Chicago Headline Club at the Better Government Association to give them a heads up on his activities.

 

After the letters went out Boylan began following up with calls to create a scheduled meeting. It was felt that for ordinary OMA activities that scheduling a meeting would most closely resemble the experience of parents attempting to examine the LSC records.

 

During this same period Potts and Boylan had a fiery conversation with the CPS FOIA officer about the responsibility of the office to complete the FOIA from September.

 

The FOIA Office turned up the heat on the schools in early December.

 

As a result, the schools were confused when Boylan called. Many said they had given all the LSC information to the CPS FOIA office. As noted in the attachments, Boylan had not asked for a comprehensive list of documents from the LSCs. It was a CPS FOIA office error that asked for all the notes on the LSCs targeted.

 

However, the combined efforts were largely successful. Being persistent with the FOIA and the visits for OMA records The Dog created a database of the LSC documents from the 16 schools and posted the documents in the Knight Foundation supported DocumentCloud. There they are shared with other journalists and the public. We do not believe there is a similar database in the city. We would like to work with other local groups to extend the data base across the city.

 

At the beginning of school winter break Potts and Boylan concluded they would need to go back and make another test of the schools. Although The Dog was able to post LSC information for each of the schools, and although the schools were beginning to invite The Dog to LSC meetings, it wasn’t clear the schools understood all the needs placed on them by the OMA.

 

Potts prepared another letter to the schools in January. She noted some of the shortcomings of the December LSC minutes drive and what was the minimum required of the schools to meet the OMA.

 

The acceptance of candidate applications by the schools created a new opportunity for The Dog to return and test the OMA understanding of the schools.

 

We believe that if a school does the following activities it will be in full compliance with both the language and the spirit of the OMA and the Illinois School Code:

 

A bulletin board should contain the roster of LSC officers, the minutes of the most recent meeting and the agenda for any upcoming meetings

If the school maintains a web site, it should contain the minutes to past meetings (or it should contain a link to the new site created by The Dog on DocumentCloud)

In the main office of the school there should be a binder containing the minutes of the LSC and other material such as the roster of LSC members. The binder should be available to the public for inspection upon request. Certain limits may be placed on the use of the binder by the school (for example, do not remove the binder from the office, do not remove materials from the binder).

 

With regard to the elections for LSC, The Dog holds that the following is required by CPS policy:

 

An approved poster shall be placed at the main entrance to the school announcing the LSC elections.

A map of the school district must be posted on a bulletin board.

The bulletin board should contain Forms 2-12, optional statement of candidacy.

Form 4-10 posted on a bulletin board.

In the main office of the school, and separate from the LSC minutes, there should be a binder containing copies of the nomination papers presented to the school. Due to the sensitive material inside, the use of the binder should be limited, (e.g., you may only examine the binder while in the office and standing at the counter, you must sign-in to examine the binder). The binder, in this case, contains information that could be used for identity theft and greater security is necessary. 

 

The Dog relied on language in the 2010 Local School Council Election Guide in the next step of its record test: 

 

DELIVER NOMINATION PAPERS

The Principal will photocopy all nomination papers. The photocopies of these documents and the photocopies of the forms of identification submitted by candidates will be maintained in a file by the Principal. This file should be accessible for review by the public upon request with the exception of the Telephone Number Disclosure…

 

It was felt this next round of records inspections would not use scheduled meetings. First of all, the internal policies of the CPS seemed to indicate that the records we were seeking should always be available for inspection. And second, it was felt that the experience of parents who were planning to run for LSC or contest the eligibility of an LSC candidate would be reflected better with a surprise visit.

 

On February 21 the work started. 

Waters

Poster present

No map

Form 4-10 posted

No Forms 2-12 on bulletin board (This was corrected while we were in the building)

Access granted to records

Budlong

No poster

No map

No candidates filed

Chappell

Poster present

No map

No candidates filed

Trumbull

Poster present

No map

Form 4-10 posted

Forms 2-12 prominently displayed

Access granted to records

Amundsen High

Poster present

No map

No candidates filed

McPherson

Poster present

No map

Form 4-10 posted

Form 2-12 posted

No access to records without an appointment 

 

On day one, Tuesday, Boylan waited for 30 minutes at McPherson for the records. He arrived at about 2.40P. As he was entering he noted many parents were gathering outside the building to greet their children.

 

Once inside he was told he had to make an appointment to see the records. He left immediately after being told that the person, the designee, he needed to speak with was unavailable. He was given a number to call for the person. Boylan recognized the number as a CPS number and asked if it was direct. He was told it would transfer to them.

 

On day one, after getting home, Boylan attempted to call the designee. He discovered the telephone number was the general switchboard for the school. He then wrote an email to Principal Mendoza at McPherson saying he would return during school hours in the next two days to review and examine the records and sharing the full document pertaining to the election process and the key paragraph above.

 

On Wednesday, day two, Boylan called the designee. She was out of the school for the day. 

 

Boylan asked who he could talk to about the records and the clerk was unfamiliar with anyone being able to help him. At that point, Boylan left a message that he would return to the school that day to examine the records. 

 

The clerk noted that she felt Boylan was rude both on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Asst. Principal later asked Boylan why he couldn’t be civil and Boylan admitted to being more forceful on Wednesday, but noted that the AP had moved through the office a number of times on Tuesday and that he hadn’t even noticed Boylan. Clearly the clerk had a thin skin as nothing happened on Tuesday and the Wednesday message was meant for the Principal.

 

On Wednesday morning Mendoza called Boylan, who at this time was driving to the school, demanding to know why he was rude and requiring him to make an appointment.

 

Boylan did not receive this call till 8P when he returned home from the day.

 

When Boylan arrived at the school, he had a meeting with the AP. The AP belittled the need of the public to examine these election records and noted that the staff would not drop everything to deal with such demands. This meeting took place at about 11.30A.

 

Boylan noted:

the policies of the Board of Education

the simple fact that access to the records should not be impeded

he noted that five schools had complied with the request

that if a parent made the decision to run for LSC, they would most likely make it while on the school grounds. And finally that policies that had the effect of making the parents jump through hoops, as the school was having Boylan jump, would discourage participation in the LSC process. “I’m a professional journalist,” Boylan noted. “Imagine how these policies are regarded by your parents.”

 

The AP asked if Boylan was “enforcing” the law. He made a big point of writing down ‘he feels he is an enforcer.’ 

 

Boylan said yes. The principle of seeing the documents had now reached center stage.

 

At this point, the AP said he would not provide the documents and had no access to them. Boylan asked how the work of the missing person could be accomplished if no one had access to their files? 

 

If there was NO access, then a confrontation wasn’t necessary. Boylan would have to return.

 

However, the AP admitted that someone did have access. But it wasn’t him.

 

Boylan announced he wasn’t leaving without access. The AP suggested he wait outside the building. Boylan said he would find an out of the way place and wait them out. But that he wasn’t leaving the building.

 

Some of this conversation between Boylan and the AP was heated. But in general each person was respectful of the other. Boylan felt that the AP did not understand the underpinnings of the mission for open government records. The AP felt Boylan did not understand the need of the schools for procedures for access to the records. 

 

There is also the always present fear of any threat to student safety. Boylan had made sure to sign in to each office he visited and to present himself at each office, following the security protocals of each school. This didn’t seem to be an issue for McPherson School.

 

The meeting with the AP ended.

 

Boylan then settled in to a comfortable chair he found in the lobby, a cell phone his companion. His calls:

Jerry Boyle at the National Lawyers Guild

Boyle called a contact in the Police Superintendent’s Office. The contact recognized Boylan’s name as they had met on Monday outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s home. That promised that an arrest, if it happened, might not be on a felony charge.

Paul Pinderski at Pinderski & Pinderski

Natalie Potts at the Chicago Kent School of Law, Open Government Center

Alden Loury at the Better Government Assoc./ Society for Professional Journalists

Ill. Rep. Ann Williams

The Public Access Counselor of the Illinois Attorney General

The contact here had Boylan go through the press office. Nothing came of this call.

Ald. Ameya Pawar

Coleman Goode, Chief of Staff of Ill. Rep. Greg Harris

Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey

None of the politicians would take a stand. However the point was to have them call the school and ask questions, not take a stand. Fritchey made a personal suggestion: start posting the situation live to FaceBook and Twitter. Boylan made three posts during the situation due to Fritchey’s suggestion.

Political activist and friend Joe Lake

Lake started a secondary line of posting to FaceBook and EveryBlock.

 

At about this time Michael Carlson, the head of the LSC entered the school. His son was acting up and he came over in case he was needed. 

 

The calls stopped while Boylan and Carlson settled into an unused room to talk. They talked for about three hours. At the end of that, Carlson talked to Mendoza for about five minutes. By this time it was 4.30P.

 

Mendoza gave Boylan access to the files, but would not allow photo copy of the material. 

 

Afterwards Mendoza, some of her staff and Boylan’s wife, Jane Rickard (a member of the SPJ/Headline Club and another Lisagor winner) talked for about an hour. Rickard appeared just as the confrontation was over.

 

In the end, The Dog got partial access and the school saved some face. No children were ever exposed to what was happening around them. 

 

We believe that the school still believes access to the records should be by appointment. However, we also believe that the school understands we have a deep-set belief that we are willing to die on this hill to protect public access to any records like this.

 

Boylan left the building at 5.10P.

 

Documents: Chicago Public Schools Election Guide 2010

This document has been updated for 2012. The text Boylan used is on page 2-3 and is highlighted

 

Illinois Open Meetings Act

 

Illinois Freedom of Information Act

 

Illinois School Code

 

Illinois State Records Act

 

Chicago Kent Law School; Center for Open Government letter to schools, December 2011

 

How to Disarm a Policeman” Video by Jerry Boyle of National Lawyers Guild for Occupy Chicago

 

Attorney General’s Guide to the Illinois Open Meetings Act

Attorney General’s Guide to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act

120223 Patrick Boylan

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