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Are complaints against citizens public records?

maximov

Cyburbian
Messages
137
Points
6
I would assume that every citizen has the right to view his file and any written complaints against him- is this correct? Does the public have the right to view complaints about other citizens? It doesn't seem to fall solidly into any of the usual reasons to keep a record confidential, at least not in our statutes, but I understand why a clerk might feel funny about it.
 

mike gurnee

Cyburbian
Messages
3,066
Points
31
In all my years, I have never had that situation occur. Officially, the record is public.

But when we get a complaint about a property, I NEVER give out the name of who complained. I have seen too many ugly things happen between neighbors. After an investigation, staff becomes the complaining party.
 

giff57

Corn Burning Fool
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
5,443
Points
34
Zoning Goddess said:
Our office accepts anonymous complaints. It keeps neighbors from killing each other.

When we tried that we ended up running around on wild goose chases. Now I will listen to the complaint, not record it and go out and check it out. If there is a problem I file it myself. In Iowa, anything that is recorded by a government is open for the asking. Another option is to not give the information without a written request. You can also charge them a reasonable amount for copy and admin costs.
 

Chet

Cyburbian Emeritus
Messages
10,623
Points
34
Zoning Goddess said:
Our office accepts anonymous complaints. It keeps neighbors from killing each other.
In my last municipal job, we had a two-tiered policy:

1) Comnplaints made to the department staff MUST be signed, name clearly printed, and must be from a current resident or NO followup would occur. It would just be filed.

2) If some one wished their complaint to be anonymous, they could call their Alderman, and if the Alderman chose to investigate and order staff to pursue, we would tell the complainee that the complaint came from the Alderman.

It helped alot. The elected official had to decide whether or not to take the heat, and it kept staff out of neighbor v. neighbor p*ssing contests.
 

boiker

Cyburbian
Messages
3,889
Points
26
Foia Protected!

Never ever ever release the name of a complaintant. It is protected information according to the Freedom of Information Act. All information related to a citizen complaint can be released except for information pertaining to the complaintant.
 

Chet

Cyburbian Emeritus
Messages
10,623
Points
34
boiker said:
Never ever ever release the name of a complaintant. It is protected information according to the Freedom of Information Act. All information related to a citizen complaint can be released except for information pertaining to the complaintant.
Since when? FOIA is a federal statute for federal offices. I dont beleive it applies to local governments.

If I am wrong, some one please tell our past (now governor) and current state attorneys general. The Wisconsin Open Records laws are pretty clear in this regards. They are not protected, and have even been used to bring libel charges against complaintants.

Perhaps Illinois laws mirror fed regs?
 

Hedwig

Member
Messages
15
Points
1
boiker said:
Never ever ever release the name of a complaintant. It is protected information according to the Freedom of Information Act. All information related to a citizen complaint can be released except for information pertaining to the complaintant.
I'm surprised, because I have viewed and made copies from a file on a neighborhood industrial scofflaw; the file includes my own letters of complaint and those of my activist ally next door, and is held by the ordinance enforcement officer at the county land use office. I assume that the industrial plant owner and anyone in the public could ask to view this file. When my ally and I made a number of complaints, the county staff told us they could only take the scofflaw to court if we were willing to participate as witnesses, which was one reason we put our complaints into writing. And yes, it is an unfun business, especially when the business owner you are complaining about has a history of threatening violence, a history of code violations, and... if your neighbor's barn was burned down by an arson fire right after she complained about early morning industrial racket. Our county treats code enforcement as a criminal issue rather than civil, which is really a problem; the defacto way things work is that neighbors are forced to complain about each other, rather than the county routinely enforcing its codes as a matter of course. Lack of staff...

Quijote
 

Gedunker

Moderating
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
11,482
Points
41
Interesting thread and timely, too.

We just had a discussion in the office of removing most personal information from our applications (home address/phone/fax/cell, for example) to protect privacy. This got started after a citizen used state open records law to copy the entire file then called and harrassed the applicant after the ZBA had denied the request (pretty classy guy, huh?).

I would be interested whether others are doing this and how it works.
 

boiker

Cyburbian
Messages
3,889
Points
26
Chet said:
Since when? FOIA is a federal statute for federal offices. I dont beleive it applies to local governments.
Thanks for the correction! Illinois state law prevents Illinois state and local government from disclosing this information: This serves as a reminder to me...always check state statutes.
The FOIA does NOT apply to:


Any elected official of the US Government (i.e., Congress)
Officers of the Federal Judiciary Branch (i.e., Judges)
Private citizens
Private companies or associations
Government contractors
Government grant holders and
State or local governments.
Linky!:
FOIA info

(b) Information that, if disclosed, would constitute
a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, unless the disclosure is consented to in writing by the individual subjects of the information. The disclosure of information that bears on the public duties of public employees and officials shall not be considered an invasion of personal privacy. Information exempted under this subsection (b) shall include but is not limited to:

(v) information revealing the identity of persons
who file complaints with or provide information to administrative, investigative, law enforcement or penal agencies; provided, however, that identification of witnesses to traffic accidents, traffic accident reports, and rescue reports may be provided by agencies of local government, except in a case for which a criminal investigation is ongoing, without constituting a clearly unwarranted per se invasion of personal privacy under this subsection; and.......
Linky to Illinois State
 

giff57

Corn Burning Fool
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
5,443
Points
34
So, it comes down to the ultimate planner answer..... It depends.

Check your local state code.. some are on line.
 

Repo Man

Cyburbian
Messages
2,549
Points
25
Our policy is that all complaints are anonymous but 9 times out of 10 the offending property owner can figure out who made the complaint. If people are uncomfortable with making an anonymous complaint directly to a city employee, they can make one to the alderman. Most complaints are via phone, so there is really no written record beyond my notepad. If someone e-mails a complaint it is considered public record and if someone wanted it, they could get it.
 

maximov

Cyburbian
Messages
137
Points
6
This is fascinating, thank you all. I have looked at state code in the past and determined they were not protected, but I am going to go back and read it again. Our town ordinance provides for action to be taken on, for instance, a conditional use permit renewal, only if a complaint has been recieved about the permit holder by the town. However, when frivolous and retaliatory complaints are made, the release of the complainant's name becomes key. Giff's and Chet's methods make sense; have the town do a preliminary investigation before the complaint is officially filed or acted upon.
 

otterpop

Cyburbian
Messages
6,655
Points
28
It is the policy of our county not to reveal the names of people who file complaints against one of their neighbors. When we receive a complaint, one of the staff investigates it and, if there is a violation, the County is the complainant. We do not want to discourage complainants and we also want to protect them from the violators. Of course, half the time they know who it is. After all, if you build a garage addition into the side yard setback within a foot of the proeprty line and there is a complaint, which neighbor do you think complained?
 

giff57

Corn Burning Fool
Staff member
Moderator
Messages
5,443
Points
34
otterpop said:
Of course, half the time they know who it is. After all, if you build a garage addition into the side yard setback within a foot of the proeprty line and there is a complaint, which neighbor do you think complained?
I had one of those a couple of weeks back. A guy came in for his mother complining that a prefab home was too close. He kept saying that his mother didn't want the guy to find out. Turns out when they set the house with a crane, it ended up 3 inches in the setback. Took me forever to convince the guy that his mother would have much bigger problems if the city made the guy lift the house and move it 3 inches.
 

CCMNUT39

Cyburbian
Messages
256
Points
10
To complain or not to complain...is it going to bite me in the ass???

Interesting discussion everyone.....it's facinating to see how the laws vary from state to state. I think when it comes to citizen complaints on the record, unless it's a public hearing, I would think it wise to keep the name of the person who complained confidential. In a small city, such as the one I work in, we rely on our citizens to be our eyes and ears for code complaince. When you only have one code enforcement officer who is also our animal control officer, those duties can become overwhelming. A spirit of cooperation to correct the issue would be in everyone's best issue.....but you do have those folks who are/can/will be difficult....
 
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