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Local News

Watchdog group files lawsuit against Lisbon Seward Fire District

Multiple violations of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act alleged

Kendall County Courthouse, 807 John St. in Yorkville.
Kendall County Courthouse, 807 John St. in Yorkville.

YORKVILLE – Lisbon Seward Fire Protection District has been accused of violating the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, by a donation-driven downstate watchdog group.

Edgar County Watchdogs filed a complaint through their lawyer on June 14, saying the fire protection district knowingly and willfully violated FOIA, according to Kendall County court records.

The complaint said the fire district did not respond to an initial FOIA request sent to two email addresses said to be affiliated with the fire district on Aug. 5, 2018. They said ReadNotify receipts show the email from one address was opened twice by one reader and the email to another address was forwarded to another person and opened eight times total by two readers, court records said.

"As of the date of this filing, the defendant Lisbon Seward Fire Protection District has not responded to this FOIA request," the complaint said.

The group asked in the Aug. 5, 2018 request for all Open Meetings Act training certificates for trustees of the fire protection district and committee board members such as the ambulance board and a copy of the FOIA training certificate for the district's FOIA officer. The request also included the last 12 months of bank statements to include all pages, a copy of the last two years of all credit card statements for any cards used by the fire district or ambulance, the last budget approved by the board and the last audit completed by the fire district.

The group also requested copies of minutes where the board appointed or contracted with a fire chief of the district and copies of all contractual obligations the fire district has had for the last three years, court records said.

The complaint also said the group filed another FOIA request on Sept. 10, 2018, which was sent via certified mail, that added the request of all email addresses used by the trustees for the fire protection district and any district employees.

Counsel for Edgar County Watchdogs said in the complaint that then-board trustee Scott Steffes signed the return receipt request on Sept. 12, 2018 and called the group two weeks later. The complaint said Steffes told the group he was unfamiliar with FOIA and it would take time to respond to the request, since no one at the public body is paid.

According to the complaint, the watchdog group received records on Oct. 8, 2018. The group said the records included some of the requested materials but not all, including the list of email addresses, the meeting minutes, the contractual obligations, the FOIA officer training certificate and the credit card statements. The group did not receive any explanation as to why those records were not produced, court records said.

The complaint said the group did not receive the last 12 months of bank statements back from September 2018, but were provided statements from June 1, 2015 through Feb. 28, 2017 for one account and statements from Dec. 2, 2015 through Feb. 1, 2017 for a second account. It also said the group requested a copy of the last audit completed for the district and instead received two annual financial reports filed with the Illinois comptroller.

The watchdog group argued the fire district failed to comply by not responding within five business days of each request and the inaction from the first request implies a denial of request of records that were not exempt from being subject to FOIA, according to court records. The group is requesting the court to expedite the case, declare that the fire district violated FOIA, order the fire district to produce the requested records, enjoin the fire district from withholding non-exempt public records under FOIA, order the fire district to pay civil penalties and to award the group attorney's fees and costs.

Kirk Allen of Edgar County Watchdogs did not immediately respond to requests for additional comment Thursday, July 11 from Record Newspapers.

Tom Fletcher and Scott Cryder, board trustees for the fire protection district, declined comment to Record Newspapers regarding the pending litigation. Trustee Jim Horton did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday, July 11 from Record Newspapers.

As of 2:45 p.m. Thursday, July 11, there was no listed defense attorney for the fire protection district in this case within Kendall County court documents.

The fire protection district covers about 65 square miles, including most of Lisbon Township and portions of Big Grove, Na-Au-Say, and Seward townships. The district has two stations in Plattville and Lisbon, along with two fire chiefs, Tim Wallace and Patrick Pope.

Wallace declined comment on the lawsuit and deferred to trustees. He said Steffes is no longer a board trustee for the fire district.

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