Editorial: New version of FOIA falls short
A new version of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act overhaul drafted by the Democratic legislative leadership offices shortchanges the reforms needed to make state and local governments more open and transparent.
Legislators, the Illinois Reform Commission and Attorney General Lisa Madigan should vocally demand that the principal reforms in the legislation she submitted be restored and that confusing language be clarified.
The leadership version of the bill removes several reforms proposed by the attorney general and weakens others or makes them more confusing. For example:
*This version defangs Madigan’s legislation by removing a provision making FOIA violations a Class C misdemeanor.
Without that provision, the culture change needed to transform Illinois from a state that tries to hide information to one whose activities are open for all to see won’t happen.
*The original bill barred governments that ignored FOIA requests from employing most exemptions to the release of records. The new version removes that deterrent by allowing public bodies to use every exemption except one that says compiling requested records is “unduly burdensome.”
*Leadership inserted language allowing Madigan’s public access counselor to make binding rulings about the state Open Meetings Act violations only in the case of executive branches. That poison pill, which may be a ham-handed attempt to exempt the General Assembly itself from the new law, makes the public access counselor useless in OMA cases because almost all of them involve legislative bodies.
*The new draft creates a fog around personnel files, which were not exempt in Madigan’s original bill. The Illinois Press Association, of which this newspaper is a member, believes the new language once again creates a blanket exemption from disclosure for such files.
Another reading of the draft is that it only exempts private information — defined in the legislation as Social Security numbers, passwords, medical records, personal financial information, license plate numbers, personal telephone numbers, home addresses, and personal e-mail addresses — contained in a personnel file, not the file itself.
Regardless, to truly reform FOIA, the public conduct of public employees must be a matter of public record.
*The IPA also believes that the addition of “addresses” in the definition of private information would shield the addresses of those charged with criminal offenses, hampering journalists’ ability to report on criminal justice issues.
*The new draft also says that all FOIA requests shall go through a single FOIA officer in each public body, which could cause a bureaucratic backlog for governments and people trying to get information.
Madigan spokesman Mike Matulis said the attorney general “will continue to battle for our version of the bill.”
“That is our message to legislators,” he said. “We have worked for many months and with many people to arrive at what we believe is a bill that would significantly improve transparency in Illinois. We think now is the time for the best and strongest bill possible.”
Everyone interested in true FOIA reform should not relent or give up on the process and continue to fight for the original legislation.