Sunshine Week: Stories and editorials from the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
Posted by: Laura Sellers-Earl
Three main government sunshine issues occurred in Springfield in 2013, two at city hall and one at the public school district.
Document shredding scandal at Springfield city hall
An embarrassing public document shredding scandal rocked Springfield city hall during the summer of 2013. Involved were high-ranking police officers, the police union, the city attorney and members of the mayor's staff.
After reviewing internal communications about the shredding, The State Journal-Register editorial board called for a personnel shakeup at city hall. Police Chief Robert Williams and city attorney Mark Cullen stepped down the next day, and during a related news conference, Mayor Mike Houston noted the SJ-R editorial as influential in their decisions to leave.
In explaining the timing, Houston said: "I think that there could be a certain amount of coincidence. This also could be the fact that there was an editorial in The State Journal-Register this morning," calling for Williams to step down and the city to reconsider Cullen's role.
A subsequent lawsuit filed over the document destruction resulted in the city settling for $100,000 – a costly mistake for taxpayers.
May 7, 2013 – Mayor Houston asks attorney general to look into document shredding (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20130507/NEWS/305079886/0/SEARCH)
July 18, 2013 – Mayor Houston: No police changes planned (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20130718/NEWS/307189902/0/SEARCH)
July 19, 2013 – Police chief, city attorney step down amid shredding controversy (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20130719/NEWS/307199868/0/SEARCH)
July 20, 2013 – Document destruction timeline (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20130720/NEWS/307209915/0/SEARCH)
Aug. 14, 2013 – State police also asked to investigate who leaked documents (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20130814/NEWS/308149892/0/SEARCH)
Aug. 9, 2013 – City admits Buscher file improperly destroyed (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20130809/NEWS/308099923/0/SEARCH)
Aug. 26, 2013 – City initiated contract change that allowed file destruction (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20130826/NEWS/308269857/0/SEARCH)
Sept. 18, 2013 – Police chief says he resisted document destruction (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20130918/NEWS/309189824/0/SEARCH)
Sept. 19, 2013 – Mayor Houston: Learned about file shredding after the fact (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20130919/NEWS/309199836/0/SEARCH)
Nov. 27, 2013 – Ordinance would settle shredding lawsuit with Christian, lawyers for $100K (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20131127/NEWS/131129814/0/SEARCH)
May 19, 2013 – Our Opinion: Springfield police must revise rules on records (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20130519/NEWS/305199949/0/SEARCH)
July 19, 2013 – Our Opinion: Time for a shake-up at city hall (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20130719/NEWS/307199903/0/SEARCH)
July 21, 2013 – Our Opinion: No excuses for ignoring sunshine laws (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20130721/NEWS/307219953/0/SEARCH)
July 23, 2013 – Our Opinion: Lots of unanswered questions in shredding scandal (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20130723/NEWS/307239917/0/SEARCH)
Aug. 15, 2013 – Our Opinion: Whistle-blower not responsible for city’s shredding mess (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20130815/NEWS/308159830/0/SEARCH)
Dec. 1, 2013 – Our Opinion: Assure Springfield taxpayers they will get answers about ‘shredgate’ (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20131201/OPINION/131209993/0/SEARCH)
Oak Ridge Cemetery closed-door meeting to discuss privatization plan
On Nov. 5, the Springfield city council and Mayor Mike Houston went behind closed doors to discuss a plan to privatize operations at historic Oak Ridge Cemetery, claiming they could do so under the open meetings act exemption that allows personnel discussions in closed session. The plan had not yet been revealed to the public.
While personnel matters made up a small fraction of the discussion that night, aldermen and the mayor discussed much more, going beyond the scope of the open meetings exemption. A reporter for another news outlet sued the city and won.
Nov. 8, 2013 – City of Springfield sued over closed cemetery discussion (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20131108/NEWS/311089863/0/SEARCH)
Feb. 20, 2014 – Judge: Springfield City Council violated Open Meetings Act (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20140220/NEWS/140229847/0/SEARCH)
Feb. 26, 2014 – Audio of closed-door Oak Ridge Cemetery talk released (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20140226/NEWS/140229499/0/SEARCH)
Feb. 26, 2014 City Beat Blog – Ninja talk not exempt from Open Meetings Act (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20140226/BLOGS/140229416/-1/blogs01)
Nov. 13, 2013 – Our Opinion: City of Springfield should understand transparency laws by now (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20131113/NEWS/311139870/0/SEARCH)
Nov. 26, 2013 – Our Opinion: Oak Ridge Cemetery’s future worth discussing (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20131126/OPINION/131129923/0/SEARCH)
District 186 board secretly signs separation agreement with superintendent
In the spring of 2013, the District 186 school board came under scrutiny for its behind-closed-doors handling of a secret plan to sever contractual ties with Superintendent Walter Milton. The newspaper questioned why it was handled in closed session instead of in the public eye and reported that portions of the audio recording of the closed meeting when the separation agreement was signed had disappeared. An editorial advised the school board to find new attorneys who could provide better advice about sunshine laws. The state attorney general agreed with the newspaper that the school district mishandled the ordeal, but a judge later sided with the district.
April 5, 2013 – Audio gap in Milton meetings; attempts to record ‘failed’ (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20130405/NEWS/304059896/0/SEARCH)
May 22, 2013 – AG: Board broke laws by signing Milton separation privately (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20130522/NEWS/305229906/0/SEARCH)
July 12, 2013 – School board asks for review of AG’s opinion on open meeting violation (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20130712/NEWS/307129866/0/SEARCH)
July 21, 2013 – Costs mount in filling superintendent void (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20130721/NEWS/307219941/0/SEARCH)
Nov. 13, 2013 – Judge sides with school board on open-meetings issue (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20131113/NEWS/311139829/0/SEARCH)
May 23, 2013 – Our Opinion: District 186 school board transparency needs improvement (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20130523/NEWS/305239916/0/SEARCH)
July 14, 2013 – Our Opinion: School board to-do list: Read sunshine law, get new attorneys (http://www.sj-r.com/article/20130714/NEWS/307149943/0/SEARCH)