ICPR Says Gov. Quinn Has Weakened Public Information Law
For Immediate Release Friday, Aug. 26, 2011
Contact: Whitney Woodward, 312-335-1767, email@example.com
CHICAGO -- Just two years after signing legislation to strengthen the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and calling the improvements “landmark,” Gov. Pat Quinn on Friday signed House Bill 1716 to rollback some of those reforms.
“The changes approved by Gov. Quinn today discourage openness in government and the new law will be a disincentive to local governments to make information available online, without charging citizens,” said Whitney Woodward, policy associate with the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR). “The Freedom of Information Act is the fundamental tool that gives residents access to the inner workings of government, to see how their tax dollars are being spent. Measures to restrict that access are deeply troubling.
“For the first time in Illinois, public bodies will be able to force some businesses to pay for the cost of pulling a public record from a storage box or sending a computer file,” Woodward said. “When governments are allowed to charge whatever costs they deem to be reasonable just to see a public record, that’s going to discourage some public bodies from posting those records online where everyone can see them immediately, without charge.
“In addition, the legislation allows governments to send some citizen records requests to the back of the stack, where they can remain for months or even years,” Woodward said. “Public bodies have long struggled to comply with Illinois’ open records law. Allowing governments to delay responding to requests, indefinitely, is antithetical to a law called ‘the Freedom of Information Act.’
“It is disappointing that Gov. Quinn, who once cultivated an image of himself as an advocate of open government, has approved a bill that takes Illinois’ FOIA law backward,” Woodward said. “It is ironic that at the same time as Illinois moves in reverse, Chicago and Cook County elected leaders are advancing open government through the posting of more government records and data sets online.”
In sharp contrast with the 2009 public bill signing ceremony where Quinn hailed FOIA reforms as “one of the more significant pieces of reform legislation in our state’s history,” Quinn signed HB 1716 in private and did not offer any explanation of the retreat from transparency.
The changes in HB 1716, which take effect immediately, include the following:--- Every public body covered by FOIA will be allowed to businesses the "actual cost" of locating and transporting any public record stored away from the central office. ICPR opposed this provision because the retrieval fee is unlimited; there is no requirement that public bodies give requestors an estimate of the cost in advance of complying with such a records request; and the bill does not state how “actual cost” would be determined. Given historical problems with FOIA compliance, including how per-page copying fees varied widely prior to a 2009 statutory update, it is important to provide public bodies with limits and direction on these new charges.
--- The Public Access Counselor in the Attorney General's Office no longer will consider appeals of denied FOIA requests by those commercial requestors. Because the filing of a lawsuit would be the only opportunity for commercial requestors to appeal a denial, this change may result in public bodies treating commercial purpose requests differently than non-commercial ones.
--- Public bodies will be allowed to place individuals who submit to a public body as few as seven requests in a week or 15 in a month into a new subcategory known as “recurrent requestor.” Once receiving a request from such an individual, public bodies would have no statutory limit on the amount of time they could take to comply with such open records requests. The bill only requires that public bodies provide requested records within a “reasonable” amount of time but does not define "reasonable." Under the law, public bodies have a maximum of 5 days, with the option for a 5-day extension, to respond to FOIA requests by all other citizens. The news media, academics and researchers are exempted from being placed in this category, which means only laypeople are targeted in this new subcategory.
About the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform
The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform is a non-profit, non-partisan public interest organization conducting research and advocating reforms to promote public participation in government, address the role of money in politics and encourage integrity, accountability and transparency in government. The late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon and former Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra founded ICPR in 1997. For additional information, visit www.ilcampaign.org.