I am not a lawyer–let me start with that. I am a looking-for-work library director/children’s librarian, not an attorney. But I don’t think you have to be a lawyer to see that the Niles-Maine District Library taxpayers are wasting a huge amount of money on lawyers these days.
Board President Carolyn Drblik read a statement at the Public Hearing on July 19 which explained that they are increasing the appropriation on the budget line for legal fees to a cool half million dollars. The Budget & Appropriations Ordinance always has two columns–one is the budget, and the other tells the Cook County Treasurer how much the library can spend. That allows them to spend more than budgeted if the cost of something essential like Workers’ Comp Insurance comes in higher than projected. It also allows them to spend money if they get an unexpected donation or grant–if it’s not appropriated, you can’t spend it. The way I always think of it is that the budget numbers are the promise of administration to the Board that they won’t overspend, and the appropriation allows them to go over that amount if necessary.
So having the appropriation be bigger than the budget is absolutely normal. The Director would still have to explain to the Board why they are spending more than the budget if they do, and it is not a license to overspend. But allowing for $500,000 in attorney fees? What? President Drblik blamed the increase on two things: the staff having filed to form a collective bargaining unit, and that the library has been getting so many FOIA requests. If I could stand it, I would find the moment in the May Board meeting where President Drblik told me that I can’t call the lawyer without permission, because they didn’t think it was necessary to call so frequently for things like FOIA questions.
In the time since the new Board came on (June and July) they have paid the library’s longtime law firm, Klein Thorpe & Jenkins, $16,123. They are one month into the new fiscal year, and have already spent 26% of the budget. What were those billable hours spent on? President Drblik decided she couldn’t trust the library’s FOIA officers to handle FOIA responses properly, so she now has them all sent to KTJ where they can be scrutinized professionally.
I am not a lawyer, but my undergraduate degree was in journalism, and of course the whole point of libraries is making information available, so it strikes me as very concerning indeed that KTJ is clearly being directed by President Drblik to redact everything possible. The purpose of the Freedom of Information Act is right there in its name–the idea is that the work of the public body should be open to the citizens to the greatest extent possible. There are legitimate exemptions to FOIA, such as not revealing personal information such as an employee’s Social Security number, say. And there is an exemption for drafts and memos that are preliminary. But KTJ is using that exemption to cover everything they possibly can, as detailed in the Niles Journal article of August 12, 2021 titled: Dark Days: Niles-Maine Library’s New Media Policy Largely Redacted. The illustration shows an email with the heading visible, and black bars covering the entire contents of the email. It is just one of many examples.
Very early on in my director days, the library won a “Sunshine Award” from the Illinois Policy Institute for its transparency. They had a rubric that spelled out all of the information such as x number of years of budgets that should be listed on a governmental agency’s website, and we hit every one. It is completely ridiculous that now, in 2021, instead of being transparent, the Library is instructing their attorneys to make sure they reveal as little information as possible to people who ask. It’s particularly ridiculous because in my years as Director, the two people who filed the most FOIA requests were President Carolyn Drblik, and Treasurer Joe Makula. Now that the shoe is on the other foot and they are the ones being asked for their emails, etc., they are not so enthusiastic about responding to FOIA requests. And it is costing the taxpayers thousands and thousands of dollars.
That of course is just one of the library’s two law firms. The other firm, Heintzelman Law LLC, charges the library $350 an hour, so if there is a phone call like one I had before I left with two attorneys on the line, it is costing $700 per hour. The library does need representation in working out the details of the AFSCME contract, no question. But if Drblik and Makula use the same approach with Heintzelman that they are with the lawyers at KTJ, they will waste incredible amounts of taxpayer dollars fighting with the staff and with AFSCME instead of approaching it with good will. I can’t tell you how much Heintzelman charged the library for July expenses, because none were listed…which is odd. I can tell you that in June, they had already racked up a bill of $13,383.
It shows once again that people with bad intentions can run for local office on the pretext of protecting the taxpayers, and if the community doesn’t pay enough attention, they can end up paying half a million dollars in legal fees in just one year…or more. The cost in taxpayer dollars is only a fraction of the overall cost of having bad trustees running your local library.