In a unanimous rebuke of an argument the attorney general once called an "outrageous" abuse of public records law, the Illinois Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled against the Wheaton Warrenville school board for claiming it would be an invasion of its superintendent's privacy to publicly disclose his employment contract.
The 16-page opinion written by Chief Justice Thomas R. Fitzgerald rejected the board's claim and ordered that the contract "must be disclosed in its entirety."
The ruling follows more than four years of legal wrangling by the board to keep the contract private. Disclosure was initially requested by a former school board candidate in 2005. It cost school district's taxpayers more than $62,000 in legal bills to fight the case.
In a one-paragraph news release Wednesday, a spokesman for the Wheaton Warrenville Community Unit School District 200 said the board decided to take the case to the high court "in order to protect the personal privacy of its administrators and staff."
Robert Rammer, the district's communication director, said the board intends to comply with the decision and release the contract of former Supt. Gary Catalani, whose annual salary of more than $380,000 at one point was the highest among superintendents in the state.
In a recent visit to the Tribune to advocate that her office be given binding authority to settle records disputes, Madigan called the case a premier example of how public officials abuse a broadly worded exemption that allows them to withhold public records when they believe disclosure would constitute "clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
Among the records listed in the law that fall within that category are personnel files of public officials. The school board argued that since the contract was in the personnel file, it was private.
"With their argument, you could pretty much shield anything you wanted from public disclosure by sticking it in somebody's personnel file," Madigan said. "Obviously, that's outrageous and not the intent of that exemption whatsoever, and that is how it has been used and abused."
The Supreme Court agreed, reasserting its position that the Illinois Freedom of Information Act "is to be accorded liberal construction" and re-emphasizing the often-ignored portion of the law that says "the disclosure of information that bears on the public duties of public employees and officials shall not be considered an invasion of personal privacy."
The district had fought making Catalani's contract public since former school board candidate Mark Stern twice submitted requests to disclose contract four years ago.
The district denied both requests, prompting a 2006 lawsuit in DuPage County Circuit Court. The court dismissed the case, but the state appellate court sided with Stern.
The school district then appealed the ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court because it feared the ruling would grant too much access to personnel records, according to board President Andy Johnson.
Fitzgerald's opinion rejected the district's argument that the contract was exempt from disclosure because of where it was stored as "insufficient to insulate it from disclosure."
The Supreme Court ordered the DuPage County Circuit Court to evaluate whether Catalani's contract, which the district previously had shown to reporters from two newspapers including the Tribune, contains limited personal information, such as a Social Security number or bank account information, and if so, to shield that information from public view.
"We do not intend, however, for the ... inspection to become a battle of details, requiring the Circuit Court to parse the contract and determine whether each individual or subsection bears on Catalani's public duties," Fitzgerald wrote.
Stern's attorney, Shawn Collins, called the opinion "a home run for people who are trying to learn what the government is up to."
Terry Pastika, executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center, said, "This puts to rest this business of school districts that seek to withhold public employment contracts from disclosure."
Bob Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.