This week’s Sunshine Activist interview is with Cal Skinner of the McHenry County Blog in Illinois. Cal has long experience at promoting greater knowledge of what local units of government are up to through determined, diligent and effective use of Illinois open records laws.
We really, really appreciate the willingness of all the terrific Sunshine Activists out there to patiently answer our questions. At the end of the year, we believe this growing resource will be a source of edification and inspiration for novice and seasoned FOIAers alike.
And thank you, Cal, for this week’s interview.
- What year did you file your first open records request?
Decades ago. Can’t remember.
- What documents were you looking for?
Let me pick one. I filed one with the US CDC (Centers for Disease Control) in about 1991 for anything it had on the almost $500,000 study which studied the transmission of HIV within Illinois prisons.
- Did you get those documents?
I received a one-page poster posted in the international AIDS conference in Italy which revealed that one-third of one percent of Illinois inmates became HIV-infected during the first year they were incarcerated. That doesn’t sound like much, but if the Illinois HIV transmission rate were one-third of one percent, all of the HIV infections in the history of the epidemic would have occurred in one year.
- Charles Davis of the National Freedom of Information Coalition has talked about having “a FOI moment”. Have you had “a FOI moment” and can you describe it?
I guess it was figuring out that the CDC FOI wanted to suppress the quite important, but not-too-stunning finding that HIV is spread within prisons. (Think rape in prison, tattoos, sharing needles.) If you remember the CDC’s TV condom campaign of the late 1980’s, it cost about what this study cost. In other works, the prison study was a significant expenditure. I could not believe this so-called public health agency would not want to shout the finding from the house tops. It had policy implications. The only way I got a study written by the CDC was to contact every Illinois congressman and senator, a fair number I knew from being state representative, and asking them to help pry one out. Even then, the guy who wrote it minimized how bad the situation was. And the CDC refused to publish it. I am convinced that was because the CDC did not get the results it expected and wanted. The policy implications were clear. If prisoners were infecting other prisoners, then the infected inmates should be housed separately. That, of course, was not politically correct and still has not been implemented. (If I sound bitter at the incompetence of the CDC, I am. How many uninfected inmates were infected while prison officials sat by and did nothing to protect the uninfected?)
- What is the worst (or funniest or most obstructionist or most outrageous) reply you’ve ever received?
It came from McHenry County College. The college told me I could not have a consultant’s study for which it paid $70,000 and with which it justified borrowing $35 million. The reason? It was proprietary information. The college even cited a section of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
- How quickly do you generally receive replies to a request?
Usually, the maximum amount of time is taken.
- About how many open records requests have you filed?
- How do you let your friends, neighbors or the local media know about the documents you get?
I often write articles about them on McHenry County Blog unless I use what I get from one government to give me clues of what to ask from another one.
- Have you run into any trouble as the result of filing open records requests?
With McHenry County College and the City of Crystal Lake I have about the same project. The idea of putting a minor league baseball stadium on the campus of McHenry County College originated with the city manager. Staffs of the two governments communicated for over two years, but neither would provide any information. One even denied it existed.
- What’s the most significant political outcome that has resulted from the work you do?
McHenry County Blog articles on the college’s proposed baseball stadium have raised the issue of whether the minor league baseball team’s revenues are capable of repaying the $35 million to be borrowed. So far, no newspaper has even raised the question.
- Has your local newspaper ever commented on the work you do? Favorably or unfavorably?
Yes. Both daily papers, reporters for the Daily Herald (the 3rd largest in Illinois) and the Northwest Herald (the dominant paper in McHenry County with about 50% penetration) picked up on the county board’s attempt to punish me for taking pictures of the board members in what unknowingly were a series of flash photographs by proposing a rule to prohibit flash photography and force photographers to the back corners of the county board room.
A series of articles and editorials resulted in mentioning the name of my blog, which undoubtedly increased readership.
- To the Back of the Bus, Er, Room, with Your Camera
- Focus on Photos – Part 3 [commenting on NW Herald article that put my photo on its front page]
- Focus on Photos – Part 4 [commenting on the story with photo being at the top of the Daily Herald’s front page]
Another First Amendment issue made the Northwest Herald as well. I went
to a meeting of the Prairie Grove School District near Crystal Lake. The board had apparently approved a contract for its superintendent, but in a secret meeting. It was meeting that night–election night–to rectify the previous dubiously legal action. A number attending the meeting were outside in the hall. As is the case with most public bodies who go into executive session when I am around, I try to take photos of those behind closed doors. I did so and when one of a seemingly “nice” older lady board member started acting very unladylike, shaking her fist and yelling at the top of her voice I tried to get a picture of that. Then I started laughing. I found it hilarious. An administrator came out and walked across the hall into the gym. About 10-15 minutes later he came down the hall with a police officer, who proceeded to evict me, even though prior to his appearance no one had asked me to leave.
If you want the blow-by-blow, it’s here:
- Threatened with Arrest
- Northwest Herald Headline: “Board calls police on political blogger” And fellow Crystal Lake blogger Alan Showalter even created a “Wanted” poster
- Caught Laughing Loudly Again
- What’s your best advice for other “Sunshine Activists”?
Be persistent. Act the question in different ways. Let reporters know what you are not getting that they might be interested in.
- What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?
I already knew some public officials prefer the darkness, but I suspect many people want to think the best of their public officials and that is not always a warranted opinion.
- If you could change your state’s open records law just one way, what would that change be?
A Cook County Appellate Court decision has gutted the Freedom of Information Act in Illinois. I would be happy to share the court opinion and the devastating footnote with you. Please ask separately.
- Do you participate in any formal way in organizations that promote the freedom of information cause?
- Are you willing to have other “sunshine activists” from your state get in touch with you?
Thank you, Cal, for taking the time to share your story with our readers.