The promise of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act is that average citizens should be able to receive information about how public agencies are making decisions, simply by asking for documents and records. However, the statute — and the ways in which the statute is sometimes interpreted — is far from perfect. Here are seven
The promise of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act is that average citizens should be able to receive information about how public agencies are making decisions, simply by asking for documents and records.
However, the statute — and the ways in which the statute is sometimes interpreted — is far from perfect. Here are seven changes that some people familiar with FOIA would like to see in Illinois, in no particular order.
1. Fewer exemptions on what information the government can withhold from the public.
“As a constituent who uses FOIA, I’m always going to tend toward less exemptions. I think that tension exists in exemptions and an agency’s willingness to take them. We’re all going to go up to our respective lines; I always want more (and) they always want to give less. I think that’s the tension.”
— Miriam Bhimani, frequent FOIA filer and self-described CPS watchdog
2. Modernizing the act to include better access to digital records and accessing those records electronically.
“I certainly think that there’s a lot of electronic access to records that needs to get updated. And that’s a huge one.”
— Freddy Martinez, executive director of Lucy Parsons Labs, a nonprofit transparency organization
3. More interconnectivity on record keeping between government agencies.
“Instead of each department being a separate FOIA, instead of the FOIA officers saying, ‘Oh that’s not us,’ tell me which agency to FOIA.”
— Pete Czosnyka, FOIA enthusiast in Chicago
4. Providing funding to agencies specifically to make FOIA a priority.
“Agencies have to figure out a way to fund the people who are actually doing the footwork to find the information that’s requested. So, if there’s a way it could be funded in some way so that you actually have dedicated people who are looking for that information for you.”
— Jennie Biggs, communications and outreach director, Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education
5. Clarification in the law on what is a “commercial request” as opposed to a request filed by a private citizen, journalist or nonprofit. The statute allows agencies to take up to 21 working days to respond to a commercial request, as opposed to five days for all other requests.
“I’d like to see the section on what constitutes a commercial FOIA request rather than a non-commercial request clarified. And to give us some ability to stipulate that somebody’s request is a commercial request based on our understanding of the reasons for which they’re requesting the information, whether they acknowledge it as such or not. Because it’s like a kind of honor system and not everybody is equally honorable.”
— Justin Kirvan, former legal director of the Cook County assessor’s office
6. Improved efficiency at the Public Access Bureau of the attorney general’s office.
“I think one of the frustrations we have with the process is just how long the public access (counselor) can take — the request for review process. We’ve long suspected that if the state — if the General Assembly and governor — decided to pour more resources into that office, I’m sure the efficiency would necessarily improve. I don’t know that the political will is there for that. But at the same time when a public body blows a statutory deadline by, you know, a month and a half, two months, I think there’s got to be more accountability on that.”
— Ben Silver, community attorney at the Citizen Advocacy Center
7. Implementing penalties for government agencies that don’t comply with the statute.
“I would like to see (something) similar to what the state of Washington has, which requires the government to pay a penalty of $100 per day, per document, between the day that the response was due and the date the records are ultimately produced in litigation, which has resulted in high six-figure penalty awards against some entities.”
— Matt Topic, attorney at the firm Loevy and Loevy
Leave a Comment
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *