Reform FOIA

Illinois' Freedom of Information Act was a huge leap forward when first adopted, but now is a forgotten relic, too often ignored by the very governments who are bound by its rules. ICPR made extensive use of FOIA last year with our first report on lobbying by units of local government [pdf]. Citing FOIA, we asked for records relating to lobbying. Most governments did comply, but many, too many, did not respond in accordance with the FOIA. What we got instead was:

* Many units of government took more than a month to respond. FOIA says they must respond with in 7 business days; that response may be to claim one extension, but they absolutely must respond within 14 business days. Large units of government, including the City of Chicago and Cook County, took far, far longer to get back to us.

* Many units charged excessive fees. FOIA allows units of government to charge actual copying costs -- that is, the cost of making copies, not the cost of gathering the information. For paper documents, a trip to the corner copy shop would suggest this is about 10 cents per page. We had units charging 25 cents per page, and the DuPage County Election Commission charged $1.00 per page.

* Many units of government refused to release documents. FOIA exempts from disclosure certain kinds of legal work. We found units of government that claimed that because their lobbyists were also lawyers, they did not have to tell us anything about their work or billings -- even though lobbying is not exempt legal work.

FOIA is supposed to be a floor, a minimum standard that all units of government must follow when taxpayers ask questions about what's being done in the name of the public. In practice, FOIA too often becomes an obstacle course, manipulated by public officials to discourage the public from asking questions.

We agree wholeheartedly with the State Journal-Register's editorial today that FOIA "needs reform -- now." The statute needs to be cleaned up and streamlined. And government agencies need to be reminded of their duties under FOIA, which are, after all, merely what government owes to its owners.