Category Archives: FOIA

Vexatious Outcome: New Illinois Law Hurts Freedom of Information Act

vexatious

After months of fighting to protect the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which protects citizens’ access to information about their government, the Better Government Association is disappointed with Gov. Pat Quinn’s decision to sign a bill into law that limits the public’s right to know.

While state lawmakers made FOIA stronger in 2010, attempts to chip away at the newly minted protections began as soon as the law went into effect.

FOIA gives public bodies five business days to respond to a request for public information, or 10 days if they get an extension.

But the new law allows public bodies to label citizens as “recurrent requesters”, 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 a citizen is labeled a recurrent requester it’s harder for them to access public information for an entire year. Once a public body determines someone is a recurrent requester, there is no appeals process.

The new law requires no set timeline by which a public body must respond to a recurrent requester. Instead, public bodies can take 21 days to give a recurrent requester an estimate as to when they might get the requested documents.

While the new law will also give the Illinois Attorney General more time to spend issuing binding opinions, and less time on bureaucratic paperwork, that does not make up for the bad public policy contained in the remainder of the new law.

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 use of the web. If more basic public information, like meeting minutes and contracts, were 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 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.

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Filed under FOIA, Legislative Update, Transparency

Action Alert: Gov’t transparency under attack!

This spring, lawmakers in Springfield approved HB1716 — a bill that makes it harder for citizens to freely access public information under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA.) Now the measure is heading to Governor Quinn’s desk, where he can either sign it into law or reject it.

>> Contact Governor Quinn and urge him to reject HB1716 — a bill that decreases access to public information and rolls back FOIA protections.

Under the bill, public bodies can tag taxpayers as “recurrent requesters” if they make more than 50 FOIA requests in one year, 15 in thirty days, or 7 in seven days — a label that sticks for a year and means there is no set timetable for the taxpayer to receive the information requested.

The lack of a set time frame for reply will leave our 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.

>> Click here to contact Governor Quinn and urge him to reject HB1716 — the FOIA rollback bill.

Thank you for taking action to protect our right to access public information.

 

Emily Miller
Policy and Government Affairs Coordinator
Better Government Association

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Got Transparency? Not for Long—Help BGA Protect FOIA

BGA policy and government affairs coordinator, Emily Miller, has been monitoring developments on the most pressing state issues, and advocating for open, accountable and efficient government during the legislative session that recently concluded in Springfield.

Miller evaluates where one of the BGA’ s top legislative priorities—protecting the Freedom of Information Act—now stands.

Protecting the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the law that gives citizens the ability to access information about their government, is a top BGA priority.

This year, the BGA worked to prevent a sweeping rollback of a new and improved FOIA law that went into effect last year from passing in the Illinois General Assembly.

The good news is that, by being involved in negotiations with key lawmakers and staffers, the BGA stopped some of the most absurd FOIA backsliding, including allowing public school districts to wait all summer until students returned in the fall before responding to a citizen’s FOIA request.

The bad news is that, despite the efforts of the BGA and other good-government groups, FOIA still suffered a blow when Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael J. Madigan teamed up in the final hours of the legislative session to pass a measure that, in the BGA’s view, weakens the FOIA law.

>> Call 312-814-2121 to tell Gov. Quinn to veto HB1716, the FOIA rollback bill.

Backers of the bill argue they are merely tweaking current FOIA law to improve its implementation.

Nevertheless, the impetus for the additional bill were claims from local units of government that, since the new FOIA law took effect in 2010, FOIA requests are becoming overly burdensome. Leaders of local municipalities and government agencies complained to state lawmakers about the high costs and increased employee hours and workload required to fulfill a growing number of FOIA requests.

However, none of those groups presented compelling hard data or statistical analysis to back their claims and instead won over lawmakers mostly with anecdotes and stories of mounting FOIA-related bills and managerial hardship.

What does the new bill do if signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn?
Going forward, FOIA would be changed to create a new category of FOIA requesters called “recurrent requesters.” A citizen is a “recurrent requester” if they request more than 50 FOIAs in one year, 15 in thirty days, or 7 in seven days.

Once someone is labeled a “recurrent requester”, he or she remains tagged as such for a year.

Moreover, the government is allowed to treat his or her FOIA request differently from other constituencies, including non-profits and the press.

Public bodies have no set time line in which they must comply with recurrent requesters FOIA requests. While they must let the “recurrent requestor” know within 21 days the estimated time a document search will take, they can take what is defined only as a “reasonable” amount of time to produce the document—a time frame that can be disputed only after the fact by filing a complaint with the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

The lack of a set time frame for reply can 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.

The proposed law will also give the Attorney General’s office the ability to issue binding opinions when public bodies wrongfully deny FOIA requests by reducing the time they have to spend responding to “pre-authorization requests”—the requests public bodies currently have to send to the AG’s office for permission to redact pieces of information when they respond to FOIA requests.

It’s this one positive aspect of the bill that compelled the Attorney General, after months of working with the BGA and other advocacy groups to oppose the FOIA changes, to support the bill in the final days of session.

The measure will, no doubt, give the AG more time to issue binding opinions.

But the rest of the bill is still bad public policy.

Limiting taxpayers’ access to information about their government, and deciding that some are more worthy than others to receive that information, is a bad move.

The BGA will be pushing for Gov. Quinn to veto this measure, and will keep working hard to demand our leaders take our right to access our government seriously.

Sid Webb/Flickr

>> Call 312-814-2121 to tell Gov. Quinn to veto HB1716, the FOIA rollback bill.

>> See how your Representatives and Senators voted, here:

Senate HB1716 FOIA Roll Back Roll Call, 5/30/2011

FOIA House Roll Call HB1716, 5/31/2011

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Open and Transparent Gov’t is Under Attack — Tell Your Lawmakers to Vote NO on HB1716

HB1716, SA1—the FOIA rollback bill—creates a new category of FOIA requester: the “recurrent requester,” referred to as a “vexatious requester” in earlier versions of the legislation.

If this legislation passes, a citizen who makes more than 50 FOIA requests in one year, 15 in thirty days, or 7 in seven days, can be labeled a recurrent requester, and would have no designated timeline for receiving their requester documents.

The BGA relies heavily on these requesters—we call them “citizen watchdogs”—to provide us with information about what is going on in their communities. The tips we generate from our citizen watchdogs fuel our investigations and reform efforts.

Our ability to expose fraud, waste and abuse and propose and advocate solutions will be significantly hampered if this legislation were to pass. 

>> CLICK HERE to find your State Senator and Representative.  Call the Springfield offices and tell them to VOTE NO on HB1716 — the FOIA rollback bill. Continue reading

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BGA Policy Guru Emily Miller Talks FOIA Protection and Township Reform on Outside the Loop

The Better Government Association’s policy guru, Emily Miller, talked with Outside the Loop’s Mike Stephen about BGA’s top legislative priorities for the current session—protecting the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, and reforming township government.

>> TO LISTEN
CLICK HERE

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FOIA’s Cloudy Future has us Vexed

Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, Matt Wuerker/Politico

“Sunshine Week,” a national campaign dedicated to protecting the public’s right to get information about their government, is now being celebrated. But in Illinois, the outlook for such access is more cloudy than bright.

Last year, a new Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) went into effect, making it easier for people to receive more information about their government in a timely manner.

Now, however, some state lawmakers are trying to undercut the new FOIA law by introducing bills that range from charging money to get public documents to watering down a citizen’s ability to appeal an initial FOIA denial from a government agency.

More than ten bills were introduced this year aimed at reducing FOIA’s reach.

One of the most aggressive attempts to roll back the protections of FOIA is Senate Bill 1645, sponsored by State Sen. Edward Maloney (D-Chicago).

If passed, public entities would have the authority to delay responding, until a time they deem reasonable, to a FOIA request on the grounds that they find it to be “vexatious.”

What is vexatious? Our thesaurus says it is synonymous with annoying, irritating or bothersome. Not one of those are words lawmakers typically associate with constituents who are asserting their rights to access information about their government.

So, if this bill passes, how easy would it be for a FOIA request to be labeled as vexatious? Pretty easy.

Among other things, a request can be labeled vexatious if you have already made five or more FOIA requests in a year and if the public body thinks the request is unduly burdensome.

Then, once it’s labeled vexatious, the bill adds language to existing law that prevents you from appealing that label to any higher legal authority. So once a public body calls a request vexatious, you’re vexatious for good. And you get tracked in a log with all the other vexatious people.

One section of the bill exempts the press from being called vexatious, which means that members of the press have more of a right to public information than constituents.

This is a disturbing possibility.

Public bodies should not be given the authority to deny access to public information for constituents they deem annoying, particularly when there is no higher legal authority that reviews that determination or can overturn it.

SB 1645 is headed to the Senate floor for a vote by the full chamber. The BGA will be working hard to stop this vexing legislation from going any further.

WHAT NOW? You can help by letting your state senator know that you oppose this effort—enter your address here to find your state senator’s information. Put in a call and remind him or her that access to public information is vital, and that sunshine is the best disinfectant.

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