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Thursday, April 3, 2014 12:01 am

Another day, another lawsuit

District sued again for not releasing records

 The Ball-Chatham School District is once again being sued by a citizen watchdog group that last year prevailed in a lawsuit filed over alleged violations of the state Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, Better Chatham Schools and Duane Sieren, president of the group formed last year, say that the school board has again violated the state Freedom of Information Act by withholding a draft lawsuit against Robert Gillum, the district’s former superintendent who came under investigation following his 2012 departure from the district. Gillum last year agreed to pay $16,100 to reimburse the district for disputed expense payments as well as dropping a prior agreement that had required the district to pay health insurance for himself and his spouse until 2022.

Gillum settled the case after the district sent his attorney a draft of a lawsuit that the district’s lawyer warned would be filed if the former superintendent didn’t settle claims against him that were based on a forensic audit that identified nearly $30,000 in questionable spending. When Sieren requested a copy of the unfiled lawsuit in January, the district refused to release it, saying that it was exempt from disclosure under a FOIA provision that allows public bodies to withhold preliminary records used to formulate policy or official actions.

The plaintiffs say that the draft lawsuit against Gillum ceased to be a preliminary record when the district sent a copy of it to the former superintendent’s lawyer.

“They say they can’t give it to us because it’s a draft,” Sieren said. “Our opinion is, ‘Excuse us, but if they sent it to him (Gillum), it isn’t a draft.’”

Not so, said district superintendent Carrie Hruby in a January letter to Esther Seitz, Sieren’s attorney who had warned that her clients would sue if the district didn’t release the unfiled lawsuit.

The school board used the draft lawsuit to determine what actions to take against Gillum, Hruby wrote, and the district never intended to put the document in the public domain. Furthermore, Hruby wrote, Gillum has not made the draft lawsuit public.

“It is the (school) Board’s understanding that Gillum, in keeping with his confidential treatment of the document, has not disclosed and does not consent to the disclosure of the draft complaint,” Hruby wrote.

That line of thinking didn’t fly last fall, when Sangamon County associate judge Brian Otwell ordered the district to release a copy of the forensic audit by the auditing firm of Sikich LLP that identified questionable spending by Gillum. It didn’t matter that the former superintendent didn’t want it made public and had threatened to sue, Otwell decided in finding in favor of Sieren’s group, which had sued under FOIA. The audit pertained to use of public money, the judge noted.

“Mr. Gillum’s objections to the release of the Sikich Report…cannot trump the statutory mandate that the report be released,” Otwell wrote in his order.

After being sued last year under both FOIA and the state Open Meetings Act, the district prior to Otwell’s ruling admitted violating the OMA by not providing sufficient detail on the settlement during a school board meeting last summer when a divided board agreed to settle the dispute with Gillum.

In the lawsuit filed Tuesday, Sieren and his group say that the district has also illegally refused to disclose correspondence between district officials and Gillum or his lawyers that pertain to the draft lawsuit. In a written response to a request for that correspondence made in February by Sieren’s lawyer, Hruby said that correspondence between Gillum or his lawyers and the district was exempt from disclosure because the documents were preliminary and were also sent with litigation in mind.

Attorneys for the Springfield firm of Brown, Hay and Stephens, which represents the Ball-Chatham School District, could not be reached for comment on the lawsuit filed Tuesday. Betsy Schroeder, district spokeswoman, said the district is reviewing the lawsuit and was not prepared to comment.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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