Editorial: FOIA rewrite would help public get information

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

Critics of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s rewrite of Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act think her proposal is too complicated.

We think it’s quite simple. The public wants/deserves information. The government agency provides it without making a fuss. Nothing complicated about that.

Under the current system, government entities do not easily comply with FOIA requests. There are no consequences if they decide to keep information from you. If there’s any question, elected officials tend to err on the side of keeping you in the dark.

Madigan’s proposal, which was revised and released Tuesday, would change that.

Part of her original initiative was to fine governmental entities from $100 to $1,000 if they break the law.

Cara Smith, Madigan’s deputy chief of staff, Thursday told the Editorial Board that those fines might become significantly higher on the advice of the Illinois Reform Commission. Officials who violate the law also could be charged with misdemeanors. That puts teeth into an FOIA law that government has used to gum up the works in the public’s thirst for knowledge.

If you were to file a FOIA request today — 70 percent of the FOIA requests made from 2005 through 2008 were made by private citizens — the agency you sought information from would have seven days to respond. The agency also could file for a five-day extension, but there’s nothing in the current law that compels it to comply with your request.

Agencies either try to wait it out or hope you file suit. Private citizens’ wallets are usually not big enough to spend money on lawyers and go to court.

Madigan’s changes would cut the response time to five days and, if government officials lose in court, the new law would make the government pay for your court costs.

And you’d get the information you wanted, which, as the television commercials say, is priceless.

Smith said public entities often will deny requests for information by saying the matter is “an unwarranted invasion of privacy.” That phrase has been used to keep secret the salaries paid

by your tax dollars.

The new FOIA law would define what “personal privacy” means. One of the standards would be whether a reasonable person might think the information is private.

Public bodies get many requests for information that is for private gain rather than public record. Those requests are also dealt with in the FOIA revision. Government entities have longer to respond — 21 days — for that information. Smith said those requests usually are made by out-of-state companies looking for ways to make money.

A key part of Madigan’s proposal would codify the position of public access counselor, a point person for questions about open meetings and freedom of information.

The counselor’s role ties in with the FOIA rewrite. The person who gets the job could issue advisory or binding opinions. If the public access counselor tells a public body to release information, it must do so or go to court to fight the ruling.

Smith said that in Texas, half the inquiries from public bodies seek guidance on how to proceed with FOIA requests and open meetings issues. She foresees the Illinois public access counselor spending a lot of time offering advice to government.

Smith said the goal of Madigan’s proposal, which will be submitted as House Bill 1370, is to get public bodies to disclose information, significantly rein in abuses and bring transparency and accountability to government.

Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act is too weak to serve the public. Madigan’s revisions will help you get the information you deserve more easily.

Rockford Register Star