FOIA Under Attack in Illinois

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This week we continue our coverage of the rollbacks of Illinois’s Freedom of Information law with a guest post from Emily Miller. Miller is the Policy and Government Affairs Coordinator at the Better Government Association, a non-profit, non-partisan government watchdog group based in Illinois that has been closely following this issue.

*** In 2010, during a whirlwind of post-Blagojevich “ethics reform,” the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) went through a dramatic rewrite that strengthened the rights of citizens to access information about their government. From tightening response deadlines and eliminating loopholes, to creating a “public access counselor” in the office of the Illinois attorney general, the new law made accessing information about Illinois government easier than ever.

But the honeymoon didn’t last long. Lawmakers began chipping away at the new FOIA protections almost as soon as the law went into effect. This year’s legislative session saw at least 12 different anti-FOIA bills move through the Illinois General Assembly.

The good news is that, by being involved in negotiations with key lawmakers and staffers, the Better Government Association (BGA) and other advocates stopped some of the more absurd FOIA backsliding suggested during the legislative session, including a provision that would have allowed public school districts to wait all summer until students returned in the fall before responding to a citizen’s FOIA request.

But now, under a new law signed last week by Gov. Pat Quinn, Illinois added yet another barrier to access by creating a new class of citizen—the “recurrent requester”—who must wait longer to receive documents requested from public bodies.

Referred to as “vexatious requesters” in earlier versions of the legislation, recurrent requesters are citizens who make more than 50 FOIA requests in one year, 15 in 30 days or seven in seven days.

Once citizens are labeled a recurrent requester—a label they cannot appeal—it’s harder for them to access public information for an entire year. The 2010 law gave public bodies five business days to respond to a request for public information, or 10 days if they get an extension. Under the new law, public bodies can take 21 days to give a recurrent requester an estimate as to when he or she might get the requested documents, and it requires no set timeline by which a public body must respond.

The lack of a set time frame for reply could leave citizen watchdogs without access to time-sensitive information that’s needed to keep a close watch on what’s behind fast-changing or shifting government decisions or plans.

Illinois should be moving toward increased openness and transparency, not away from it. Instead of focusing on ways to punish “recurrent requesters,” public bodies should be focusing on how to make public information more accessible through the Web. If more basic public information, such as meeting minutes and contracts, was available online, citizens wouldn’t need to file as many FOIAs.

Unfortunately, we know this is not the end of the fight to protect FOIA. Without a doubt, lawmakers will continue to try and chip away at FOIA.

The BGA remains committed to shining a light on government, and we will continue to fight for the public’s right to do the same.

Emily Miller is the Policy and Government Affairs Coordinator at the Better Government Association (www.bettergov.org), a non-profit non-partisan government watchdog group in Illinois. The BGA Think Tank blog follows BGA policy work, including FOIA. Emily Miller can be found on Twitter at @EJMill.

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