In our continuing series of interviews with grassroots Sunshine Activists, this week we introduce you to Jeff Ferguson.
Jeff lives in Jerseyville, Illinois and maintains the Jersey County Coalition for Public Awareness website.
Jeff is happy for FOIA activists, new and seasoned, to contact him via e-mail.
- What year did you file your first open records request?
- What documents were you looking for?
Documents pertaining to the construction of new schools against the will of the voters.
- Did you get those documents?
Yes. But those documents led to many more questions and many more subsequent requests.
- 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?
My second or third FOIA netted several hundred pages of documentation. When I arranged to pick up the documents at the local school superintendent’s office, she said “Mr. Ferguson, I hope you realize how much you have cost the taxpayers”. I quickly pointed out that not only was I paying the salaries of any staff member who worked on my request, I was also paying for the cost of reproduction. She then led me into her office where she had three stacks of documents. She then began to explain how two of the stacks were portions of my request and the third stack was all the documents I requested. I could have purchased one of the lesser stacks for less cost, of course, but would not have gotten all the documents I was seeking. As I was looking at the two stacks of wasted paper she had reproduced unnecessarily, it became obvious there was something I wasn’t supposed to see in the third, complete set of documents. I left with the third stack and haven’t stopped yet.
- What is the worst (or funniest or most obstructionist or most outrageous) reply you’ve ever received?
After the Illinois Inspector General, Z. Scott, requested internal audits of our school construction project, she gave the Capital Development Board and Illinois State Board of Education 180 days to comply with her request. After the six months had expired, I was told Governor Blagojevich’s office advised the Inspector General’s office they did not have jurisdiction over the ISBE. Of course, the Inspector General didn’t bother to follow up on the CDB side.
- How quickly do you generally receive replies to a request?
Usually within 7-14 days.
- About how many open records requests have you filed?
20-25 to date.
- How do you let your friends, neighbors or the local media know about the documents you get?
We have public meetings, maintain a website, write editorials, and run ads in local publications.
- Have you run into any trouble as the result of filing open records requests?
- What’s the most significant political outcome that has resulted from the work you do?
We are still working to achieve our desired outcome.
- Has your local newspaper ever commented on the work you do? Favorably or unfavorably?
Due to the scope of what we are doing, no one has fully grasped the implications except the court system and they have flatly refused to address the merits of our case or to rule on the law.
- What’s your best advice for other “Sunshine Activists”?
Never give up. If documents you receive raise more questions, keep requesting documentation until all questions have been answered to your satisfaction. Remember that throughout your ordeal, your elected officials want you to shut up and pay your taxes. Don’t! Dig in your heels and demand accountability. It is your money they are squandering.
- What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?
I wish I had filed our lawsuit immediately at the first inkling of wrongdoing, but we would not have had ample evidence or facts to prove our contentions. Little did we know that the court system would make us out to be the bad guys for not filing sooner. I also have a much broader understanding of how deep corruption runs in Illinois and the elaborate system in place to protect those benefitting.
- If you could change your state’s open records law just one way, what would that change be?
To require that no business be conducted in closed sessions when taxpayer money is involved. All budgetary and monetary decisions should be done with full disclosure and in open meetings. Also, all meetings should be recorded (and transcribed when necessary) so a full record of all business and discussion exists.
- Do you participate in any formal way in organizations that promote the freedom of information cause?
No, not at this time.
- Are you willing to have other “sunshine activists” from your state get in touch with you?
Absolutely! As I often say, “Those who stand for nothing will soon have nothing to stand for!” It is time we hold our elected officials accountable.
Thanks, Jeff, for taking the time to share this story and your experience.
Readers can contact Jeff by email or through his website, the Jersey County Coalition for Public Awareness.