Thursday, December 17, 2009

FOIA gets new set of teeth on Jan. 1

The public gains additional power in securing information through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on January 1, 2010. For the past several years there has been a Public Access Counselor (PAC) in the Office of the Illinois Attorney General, but the Counselor could be viewed as temporary; i.e., the Counselor served at the pleasure of the Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

On January 1 this office becomes permanent and will continue beyond the term of the current Attorney General.

What does the Public Access Counselor do?

This Counselor, a lawyer in the Attorney General's office, stands ready to, among other things, help a member of the public who is having difficulty in getting a FOIA response out of a public body.

Public bodies often deny information based on an exclusion in the law that to provide the information would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. I have encountered this reason for denial of a FOIA request more than once, including within the past week from the City of Woodstock. In the recent case almost the entire second page was redacted. Certainly, no invasion of privacy occurs when the statements of a person are disclosed, and in this case no invasion occurs even if his identity is revealed.

Under the new law, effective January 1, if the City is going to deny a response based on that reason, it must provide written notice to the Public Access Counselor.

And I'll bet dollars-to-donuts that the PAC will be counting the number of times that each public body denies for that reason. Of course, those numbers, once collected, will be subject to FOIA Requests, and you can bet that media will be seeking those numbers.

Other areas of new help to the general public will include:

1. to work to resolve or mediate disputes between members of the public and public bodies over FOIA and OMA (the Open Meetings Act), and
2. to investigate and issue opinions in response to Requests for Review submitted by members of the public when a FOIA request is denied by a public body, or when it is alleged that a public body has violated the OMA.

Another aspect of the new law is that the PAC is to provide electronic training to all FOIA officers and all persons designated by public bodies to receive OMA training.

This may be why the City of Woodstock has dragged its heels on forcing the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners to sit for OMA training. Back in May the City Manager ordered this training, but it never happened. It is to happen in the new year, and maybe they'll get to sit in front of computer screens instead of getting in-person training by someone in the City Attorney's office.

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