FOIA laws need to be understood
4 27 17
By Matt Turley
The Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was strengthened in 2009 and on Jan. 1, 2010, those changes took effect. The intention of the law is to hold government more accountable and make it more transparent. FOIA was a big topic of discussion during the last city council meeting because of ongoing challenges with compliance. The city attorney made his opinions about the state of affairs quite clear and used the term “harassment” in discussion of the city’s challenges. I have a confession to make. I am guilty of the behavior the city attorney calls out. I have submitted a couple of FOIAs to the city of Carlinville lately (the second was really a follow-up to the first because I suspected unintentional missing information), and I even “harassed” the Carlinville Park District by sending them one (and I just submitted a much shorter follow-up in response to the results of the first request). I thought I had a good reason to send these FOIAs, but the city attorney’s objections have got me feeling a little guilty.
My son helped me video record the meeting since I could not be there (just listening to an audio recording of a Carlinville City Council meeting does not begin to convey the full experience). This was then posted on YouTube, so it’s available for anyone to view (search user “turls”). Side note: most people do not want to watch a full meeting, so I tried to be helpful by including time stamps of most items on the agenda. The audio isn’t great on the video, and the cellular signal is too weak to reliably broadcast live video. I hope the new council seriously considers broadcasting every meeting live with a better-quality setup.
Whether you watched my video of the meeting or just read the summary in the paper, it seems there are some misconceptions about FOIAs. It helps me to think of a FOIA as an audit. I’m sure everybody hates audits, but it is a cost of doing business.
I would suggest Googling “Illinois FOIA FAQs” for links to the facts on the Illinois Attorney General website.
Just some reaction and clarification to points from the article and full meeting content:
“One of the FOIA request [sic] was for a copy of all the water bills of the elected officials for 2016. It was unsure why this was requested.”
Why they were requested is irrelevant, and no reason for a FOIA request is required to be given. Spoiler alert: the likely reason that those are asked for is to verify that nobody is abusing their authority by not paying their water bills in a timely manner. Or maybe, for example, being in a habit of paying late but not paying late fees. Asking for verification is not an accusation; it’s basic government oversight.
“Bertinetti called the situation ‘ridiculous’… But the money spent on these FOIAs is a concern to Bertinetti.”
I understand that this is an additional workload; some may even call it an unfunded mandate. Investing in a viable document management system so city staff can comply with their mandated duties came up in a previous council meeting. One of the comments that came out of that discussion was (paraphrasing) that one city officer likes to be able to flip through papers in a file. I get that. I work in an industry that loves to generate paper. There is sometimes a good reason to work with paper or print out a copy to be able to doodle and sketch on, but often this method is not going to be the most efficient or inexpensive use of resources and time. A document management system is an investment, but the ROI should be short if implemented correctly. It would greatly simplify and speed up the process of complying with FOIA, and with so many other tasks.
Bertinetti said, “Somebody’s got to pay [lawyers] to get this stuff together.” Incorrect. Nothing in the law says it takes an attorney to respond. FOIA is just generating documents you already have. No new documents need to be created. .There may be some exceptions to this — if there is a partial denial, for example, or if redaction is required.
Alderman Heigert asked if FOIA requests must come with a name. Bertinetti said “we’re looking into that.” It’s simple FAQ. Anonymous FOIAs must be responded to by law. They can still be denied, but not just because they are anonymous. I can send an anonymous FOIA with a return address of a P.O. box if I want to.
In closing, we should demand accountability from our government. FOIAs are one tool to accomplish this. I’ve also obtained information successfully from city government in other ways that hopefully were less work for everyone involved. I just don’t think FOIAs deserve the bad rap they have been getting lately in Carlinville — and even if you don’t agree with their use all the time, it’s still the law.