A California-based animal welfare group wants a judge to force Cook County to release information on the county’s animal control department, asserting the county is intentionally withholding a report from the public the group believes likely contains more information about operations at county animal control than what was revealed in a released summary of the report from the county’s inspector general.
In a complaint filed Sept. 28 in Cook County Circuit Court, the Animal League Defense Fund invoked the Freedom of Information Act in asking the judge to force a release of data from the office of the Cook County Independent Inspector General. The complaint also names the Cook County Board of Commissioners as a defendant.
The ALDF is seeking a complete operational review of the Cook County Department of Animal and Rabies Control. It said the inspector general’s office released a report summary on Aug. 21, 2015, detailing the work of a task force formed following the collection of more than 2,000 signatures on a petition calling for a better understanding of the animal control department’s operations and finances.
According to the ADLF, the petition drive began after “the discovery of several dead or severely neglected stray dogs at a veterinary facility contracted by the village of Dolton to house its stray animals.” The complaint said the county animal control department has a $3.5 million budget, but does not have its own holding facility for strays, which means Cook County municipalities must maintain their own facilities or contract with a private operator.
County commissioners noted animal control also does not maintain a database for animals implanted with tracking microchips and maintains limited operating hours, “which results in the burden of Cook County Animal Control’s duties being shifted to municipal police and the Cook County Sheriff’s Department,” per the complaint.
The 2015 summary reported “numerous conditions and practices existing within Animal Control that reflect an efficiently operated department,” but it also identified problem areas and suggested improvements. The complaint said the summary report “did not address many of the initial concerns regarding financial inefficiencies and overall ineffectiveness,” including the allocation of a budget that grew by 20 percent from 2013 to 2015.
The summary “also fails to explain what Cook County Animal Control’s staff of 22 full-time employees actually does,” the complaint said, identifying 13 clerical workers who process rabies tags and data on an “archaic” system. The summary stated there are six officers and one supervisor tasked with picking up strays, but is quoted as saying the
“department’s strategy for stray patrol is best described as ineffectual and lacking direction.”
The complaint further said the summary hints at shortcomings in the intake and dispatch system, but fails to fully detail the flaws. Believing that and other information to be available in the full report, the ALDF filed FOIA requests on June 6, 2016. The inspector general’s office denied the request the next day, saying investigatory files it maintains are exempt.
The county board denied the FOIA request on June 10 by re-issuing the summary and referring further requests to the inspector general. The ALDF said the board did not explicitly deny possessing a full report, which it plausibly possesses, and therefore accused the board of denying a FOIA request without claiming an exemption or providing another basis.
The ALDF cited a county ordinance saying investigatory files and summary reports are not to be kept confidential if they concern “inefficient or wasteful management as opposed to individual misconduct or illegality.” Releasing the summary, then, negates the argument the full report can remain confidential.
The ALDF seeks a court order declaring the inspector general and county board in violation of the FOIA and compelling the immediate release of the full report.
Representing the ALDF in this matter is Winston & Strawn LLP, of Chicago.