Heaven knows The Forest Park Review does not want to add to the burden of Proviso Township taxpayers. Chris Welch, the school board president and state rep to be, has done more than enough to saddle local taxpayers with piles of legal bills linked to his colossally failed leadership of the failed Proviso Township high school district over his decade on the school board.
A year ago the Review filed a Freedom of Information Act request with District 209 asking that the district produce “the total amount of legal fees paid by the district for lawsuits in which Chris Welch has been a defendant since his election to the school board in 2001.”
The district turned us down saying the effort to figure out just how much Welch had cost taxpayers in legal fees “would be unduly burdensome.” We narrowed our request and the district coughed up some information but still maintained it couldn’t come up with the total amount spent without overly taxing itself, so to speak.
We asked the Illinois Attorney General’s public access bureau Ð a great friend of transparency in local government Ð to review the district’s conclusion and to our disappointment the AG’s office bought the “burdensome” argument. The office did however point us down what might be a more fruitful path to gaining at least some information under the FOIA law.
So we will, for now, accept the judgment of the AG’s office that our request for an accounting of just what the Proviso high schools have spent on the legal defense of Welch over the past 10 years would just be too burdensome under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
District 209, through its well compensated attorneys, told the AG’s office that “it does not possess a record that documents the total amount of legal fees paid by the District for lawsuits in which Mr. Welch has been a defendant since 2001.” And to compile such a record would require a detailed search of more than 5,000 pages of legal billing from the past decade, the lawyers said.
That’s a lot of legal billing. And we’re not surprised that the school district is not eager to produce a number on what taxpayers have spent overall on lawsuits, particularly suits specific to the egomaniacal shenanigans of Chris Welch.
But stonewalling the local press on such a legitimate question only reinforces the oddity of the situation. In 32 years of local journalism, our company has never before asked how much a school board president has cost a district in legal fees because school board presidents do not typically wind up at the center of lawsuits. School board presidents are typically thoughtful, mature, child-centered leaders who are volunteering their time for the benefit of the community. Building a political career off school board service, building a patronage fiefdom off school board service, lining the pockets of lawyers while overseeing the cratering of both test scores and district finances isn’t our typical experience of school board presidents.
Chris Welch promised to resign from District 209 if he won the state rep seat. Well, in winning the Democratic primary by the humiliating margin of 39 votes, he is assured of being our next state rep. So Chris, where’s the resignation?