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Case may determine what taxpayers can know about officials' pay
By Dan Carden | Daily Herald Staff

In 2006, Dist. 200 Superintendent Gary Catalani's contract was faxed upon request to the Daily Herald and another newspaper was allowed to inspect it, but the district repeatedly rejected Wheaton resident Mark Stern's request for the information.

 

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Published: 3/17/2009 11:43 AM | Updated: 3/17/2009 8:02 PM

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SPRINGFIELD - Whether taxpayers have a right to know how much their school superintendent, city manager, and other contracted government employees earn and what they do for the money is now up to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The court heard oral arguments Tuesday on whether Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 can keep its superintendent's contract secret. Mark Stern, of Wheaton, a one-time candidate for the District 200 school board, asked for the contract in 2006.

But the district has so far refused to release the contract to Stern, and if the court upholds the district's position, taxpayers may never know everything they're getting for their tax dollars.

The larger issue at stake is whether government agencies in the state are entitled to keep some information and documents secret from the taxpayers supporting those agencies.

Illinois law suggests there should be few documents that aren't available to taxpayers.

"It is declared to be the public policy of the State of Illinois that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government," the law reads.

However, the law allows 45 different types of information to be exempt from public disclosure, everything from some personnel records, as is the issue in the Wheaton case, to answer keys for state-administered tests, to the home addresses of a city's police officers.

But whether those exemptions are followed and for whom can lead to conflict and confusion. That, at least, is at the heart of District 200's case.

"For anyone to argue that an employee's contract is not part of his personnel file strains credulity. That is the basis of the personnel file," argued John Relias, an attorney for the school district,

But Justice Robert Thomas seemed to suggest other sections of the law were more relevant.

"How can you say that takes precedence, when you have a statute that says a contract is a public record?" Thomas asked, challenging Relias' reliance on an earlier case. "It seems pretty clear what FOIA requires."

Stern's attorney, Shawn Collins, said five different sections of the law require the contract to be disclosed.

"It's fundamentally the kind of document the people of the state have a right to see," Collins said.

At the time Stern sought the contract, Catalani was the highest paid school superintendent in Illinois, earning a base salary of more than $306,000 a year. He's now a school superintendent in Arizona.

Complicating District 200's case is the fact that Stern was not allowed to see the contract but some news agencies were. Superintendent Catalani faxed his copy of his employment contract to the Daily Herald when the newspaper asked for it for a story on suburban superintendent salaries. Another newspaper was allowed to inspect the contract at the school district's offices.

But the school district claims Stern is still not allowed to see the document. The discrepancy seemed to bother Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald.

"It appears Mr. Stern was not favored by the school district, so he was not entitled to the same documents as other citizens," Fitzgerald said.

While the school board may not favor Stern, he did have powerful backers at the state Supreme Court. Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the Illinois Press Association, and the Citizen Advocacy Center of Elmhurst all filed legal documents asking the court to rule Stern is entitled to the superintendent's contract.

But the school district has a history of ignoring some of those supporters.

Even before reaching the Supreme Court, the attorney general's office twice told the district it was required to turn over the contract, not only under state law, but because the state constitution requires all public spending records be open for inspection. That includes the superintendent's contract, the attorney general's office said.

When the Daily Herald asked Tuesday for a record of how much money the school district has spent on its lawsuit, spokesman Robert Rammer told the paper to file a freedom of information request, which it has. Under the law the district has one week to respond, but can ask for a second week.

The Illinois Supreme Court is likely to rule on the case before the end of the year. But the court's decision in this case may not be last word.

Madigan, Gov. Pat Quinn and state lawmakers are trying to reverse the culture of secrecy that largely prevailed during Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration. During those years, requests for government information were routinely ignored by government agencies. There are no significant penalties for ignoring citizen requests for government information.

Several proposals to eliminate exemptions and add penalties to information disclosure laws are pending at the state Capitol.

Information on trial

Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 believes a former superintendent's contract should remain private.

The plaintiff

Wheaton resident Mark Stern sued in 2006 to see details of then-Superintendent Gary Catalani's contract. Catalani was the highest-paid superintendent in the state.

The defendant

The school district argues that parts of the contract contain private information exempt from public view. In 2007, a DuPage judge agreed, saying Catalani's contract was exempt from disclosure because it's kept in a personnel file.

The appeal

An appellate court rejected the ruling and directed that judge to reexamine the contract to see what can be disclosed and what should remain private.

Illinois Supreme Court

The district disagreed with the appellate court and appealed. Now, justices may decide if government entities in Illinois can hide the employment contracts of public officials from public scrutiny.