Lake in the Hills resident: Grafton Twp. violated open records law
Grafton Township is being sued by Lake in the Hills resident Bryan McKnight, who claims that the township violated the state's open records law.
The lawsuit, filed last week in McHenry County, states township Assessor Alan Zielinski withheld documents that McKnight requested under the Freedom of Information Act.
On July 7, McKnight filed two public records requests. One asked for all communication and notes between public officials or anyone on the county's Board of Review regarding four subdivisions within the township: Cheswick Place, The Gates, Del Webb and Turnberry Original Estates.
The second request asked for assessment summaries, data sheets, work sheets and reports that would show how Zielinski and his staff determine property assessments.
The lawsuit claims Zielinski was not "fully responsive to the requests." Though he provided some of the requested information, the lawsuit states, Zielinski withheld and redacted some information that should have been made available.
Grafton Township Supervisor James Kearns said Zielinski is not the designated Freedom of Information officer; the township clerk, Kathryn Hurley, holds that position. Instead of going through Hurley, Zielinski responded directly to McKnight.
"The assessor was out of line. He didn't follow protocol," Kearns said, noting the township board will address the issue with Zielinski at its meeting Monday.
Moving forward, he said, the township will make sure the requested information is provided to McKnight.
"We don't want to hide anything," Kearns said. "There was no reason not to provide the information that was redacted by the assessor."
Zielinski declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying he has not yet seen it.
"Until I am provided with a copy so I can read and digest it, any comments would be inappropriate," he said.
Dane Loizzo, the attorney representing McKnight, said his property taxes recently increased by about $3,000 per year, sparking his interest in learning how properties are assessed.
A property tax increase was fairly consistent throughout McKnight's neighborhood, Cheswick Place, Loizzo added.
After taking office in 2013, Zielinski said, he reassessed properties using new methods after finding inaccuracies in the township's previous assessments.
"If I'm being charged an extra $3,000 a year to live in my house, I'd at least like to know why," Loizzo said. "We're after the information and ultimately putting our eyes on the data sets to make sure everything was done according to statute."
But, Zielinski said, assessments don't solely determine an individual's property taxes.
"Our office's input into the property taxation process stops at establishing fair and accurate assessments," he said. "The taxing bodies' levies are what drive property taxes. Individual assessments only determine each property's fair share."
McKnight and other homeowners in his neighborhood began attending township meetings, speaking to township officials and educating themselves on the assessment process, Loizzo said. Then, McKnight asked to see specific data so he could check the numbers himself, Loizzo said, and the numbers weren't being provided to him.
After filing a public records request and still not receiving enough information to calculate the property assessments, McKnight decided to file a formal complaint, Loizzo said.
"It is our position that the information that was redacted and not turned over is the exact information needed to check the numbers," Loizzo said. "If it turns out that the numbers are correct, that's probably where it ends."
Loizzo said he has had no communication with the township since the lawsuit was filed.
If found guilty of a FOIA violation, Grafton Township would be required under the act to pay a civil penalty of between $2,500 and $5,000 per violation.