City clerk candidates criticize FOIA request process at Evanston Live TV forum

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Daily file illustration by Jacob Fulton

On Tuesday, Feb. 22, Evanston residents can vote in person across the city at their assigned polling places in the 2021 municipal primaries.

Andrew Myers, Reporter

City clerk candidates discussed overhauling the city’s Freedom of Information Act request process in an Evanston Live TV forum Tuesday.

Stephanie Mendoza, Cynthia Beebe, Eduardo Gomez, Jackson Paller (Weinberg ’17), and Misty Witenberg all participated in the forum, led by Meleika Gardner of Evanston Live TV. Two candidates, Adedapo Odusanya and Darrell Patterson, were not present.

Of the seven residents running for city clerk, Mendoza is the only candidate on the ballot. The other six are write-in candidates.

All FOIA requests are currently handled by the city clerk, making them an essential to the FOIA process. Gomez, the current deputy city clerk, said he intends to help people identify which documents or communications they are seeking when they make requests.

“It’s important that (people seeking information) give as much detail as possible, so that way we can ensure that the turnaround time (for a response) is less than 10 hours,” Gomez said.

Mendoza criticized Gomez, saying the clerk’s office failed to fulfill one of her previous FOIA requests to the city of Evanston during her time as a political campaign manager. Mendoza said the city had taken down public information on previous candidate petitions she was seeking from the clerk’s website — when she filed a request, she never received the documents.

“He told me there were IT problems and I never received the documents, after the city had taken down all the information from the website that you have to post to make it public and accessible for us,” Mendoza said.

Gomez did not have an opportunity to respond.

Mendoza, a community organizer, said she is running to make the city government more accessible to residents.

“In my experience as an Evanston resident, I know that there is a real need for community outreach,” Mendoza said. “There’s a real need for transparency, to make sure that our community trusts the decision-making our city is doing and make sure it’s in their best favor.”

Witenberg, a journalist and public policy activist, said previous administrations have seen a lack of accountability. Paller, a lifelong Evanston resident and second-year law student at Loyola University Chicago, said the city clerk needs to be mindful of inclusion and equity, in addition to transparency.

To outline the position’s responsibilities, current City Clerk Devon Reid asked candidates whether they believe their role should be more administrative- or policy-oriented.

Beebe, a former agent at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the city clerk should primarily focus on efficiently carrying out administrative tasks.

“Once you have (the administrative) down to a science, then you’ll have more energy and more time to focus on the policy,” Beebe said. “I would absolutely focus on things like elections and education of young voters. I really do think that’s a crucial issue for our city moving forward.”

Gomez said he would use his role as clerk to facilitate more dialogue about reparations, and Paller said he would focus on making legislative matters more easily available to residents.

Residents can vote early at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center until Feb. 22. Individuals can also request mail-in ballots, which must be postmarked by election day, Feb. 23. The top two vote-getters will compete in a runoff to be decided in the consolidated election on April 6.

More information on Evanston’s 2021 municipal elections is available at the city clerk’s webpage.

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