Today, I encountered individuals who wanted to know what to request through the Freedom of Information Act in order to check up on their local government spending. I am excited to oblige these fine individuals and I hope our readers take the time to do this with all their own local units of government. Most of you understand how to send a simple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, but for the few that do not, I urge you to visit the Illinois Attorney General’s website for this information at www.foia.ilattorneygeneral.net or go directly to the FAQ at http://www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/government/FAQ_FOIA_Public.pdf. Most of any questions you may have can be answered there.
There are three items that I will recommend that a novice FOIA requester to request to get a sense of the behavior and ability to follow the law of their government officials and employees. I will explain why each item is important and the clues you can look for to spot potential wrongdoing or inappropriate government spending.
Meeting Minutes and Agendas
A lot of public bodies keep these items on their website if they have one. We find sometimes this is not the case which is sometimes an Open Meetings Act violation, but we will leave that for another article. Regardless, request these from the public body. They do have the right to point you to the website for this information but the key is for them to respond timely and properly in the first place. The meeting minutes and agendas are important in that they are the official record of the public’s business. Also the public body cannot take any action on any item unless it is on the agenda. This stems from the public right to be informed of the potential action of any government body in order to decide whether they want to address their government over any item on the agenda. Red flags to look for are 1.) Actions recorded in meeting minutes that do not appear as an action item on the agenda, 2.)Minutes that do not record the yeas and nays of the individual members of the public body, 3.) A public recital of the nature of the business being decided missing from the minutes, and last but not least 4.) Any violations of law that can be gleaned from the text of the minutes or something that just doesn’t seem right. Any problems discovered are important because violations of any of these requirements can be a sign of corruption, non-transparency, and sometimes just ignorance of the laws.
Complete Bank, Credit Card and P-Card Statements
You probably find it odd that I use the word “complete” when referring to statements. From past experience, I offer the advise to request “all pages of “ statements. Many statements will include copies or checks and deposits or details of the credit card or p-card purchase. If you do not specify “all pages of” you may not receive the important part of the documents that would help you to notice any irregularities. Once you receive the documents look for odd vendors, purchases without spending authority, oddly large expenses, patterns of deposits made (i.e., once a day, then none for a week or longer), and look for travel and meal expenses. Discoveries in this area are important in that they are spending your money. You are the taxpayer and they must abide by the laws that pertain to them and must spend your money wisely and within budget constraints.
Board Member Packets
Wouldn’t you like to know what information your elected officials received ahead of time to make informed decisions? You get at least a portion of that information by requesting the board member packets. Most board member packets will contain copies of invoices to be approved for payment, department head reports, basic financial statements possibly including a budget performance report, and contracts to be considered. You can expand this request to include all email and written communications sent by the public body to board members for any given period of time which could be an eye opener. Why is this important you may ask? If your elected officials cannot make decent decisions based on the information they are provided, let alone do their own due diligence, you should be looking for people to run for office to challenge that individual’s seat.
The mentioned items are a small portion of documents that are open to the public, but are the basics to start with in order to get a sense if your local government is working for you and in accordance with law. Before sending requests for information please take the time to familiarize yourself with the limited exceptions to disclosure of records and potential to be labelled a recurrent or voluminous requester. Do not give up or be intimidated if you have a hard time getting records. If you get resistance or are ignored they are likely hiding something. The law is on your side when it comes to the records that you, as a citizen, own and fund the production of. I am happy to cover anything you may have questions on personally. I may be reached by email at [email protected]. Thank you for reading!