UPDATED: Mar. 30, 10: 45 a.m.
The Peoria Journal Star published this editorial addressing a Senate bill that may put a defitinition on FOIA 'pests,' and sets longer response periods for government bodies.
What do you think?
The Village of Lisle received more Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in 2010 than in any other year. But changes to state FOIA law being floated in DuPage County and the village's denial of some requests are making local government transparency a hot-button issue.
According to Lisle FOIA officer Kristine Curran, approximately 555 FOIA requests were submitted to the village in 2010. Curran said it’s an all-time high up from approximately 456 in 2009, the number of which is partially due to the 90 requests for information on Navistar’s controversial move to Lisle. Roughly eight to 10 requests each month are for police reports.
“We respond to all requests in some way,” Curran said. “There are times when a request or a portion of a request may be denied under one of the exemptions under the act. But everybody gets a response.”
That response, though, may not always be what the filer is looking for.
MaryLynn Zajdel is a Lisle engineer who filed numerous times in 2010 and five times already in 2011. (January’s log was recently posted on the village's Web site.) Most of her requests last year sought documents related to Navistar.
She has an outstanding FOIA request seeking village legal invoices for information on “what they’re working on.” The Illinois Attorney General’s office has Zajdel’s FOIA request, and she has been told the information is being withheld because of attorney-client privilege.
“The public documents that are held by the Village of Lisle are documents that actually belong to the people,” Zajdel said, emphasizing that the village is meant to serve as a “custodian” of the information. “Having requests denied is basically a disservice to the public.”
Curran said that when a FOIA request comes in, she indicates the date, stamps the request with a deadline, and enters it in the online log. From there, she distributes the request to appropriate staff members or department—police, public works, etc.—who will help fulfill it.
For regular FOIA requests, Curran said, a response is due within five business days from when the village received it. For requests from businesses with commercial interests, the village has 21 days to respond. Extensions are requested by the village in some cases, and the requester is notified.
Curran said the distribution of responses is “nowhere near” the order the requests were submitted.
“Some requests are very, very easy,” she said, “when some are asking for quite a few documents.”
Easy requests include police reports, a common FOIA subject. Curran said the village almost always gives responses on time.
The village’s adherence to deadlines is the result of changes to the FOIA system beginning in 2010. Since last January, Lisle and other municipalities have to have a go-to FOIA officer and respond within the established five- and 21-business-day time frames.
LeeAnn Kruszynski is a project scientist for ATC Associates, a nationwide environmental consulting firm with a branch in Lombard. She makes regular FOIA requests to numerous municipalities, including Lisle. She said she did not know about the 2010 changes but noticed a difference.
“I almost always get a response now; I don’t have to make as many harassing phone calls,” Kruszynski said. “It used to be you might never hear back from people you were requesting from or you’d call and they’d say ‘Oh, she’s out to lunch for the next two years.’”
According to the village’s online logs, ATC, which conducts environmental assessments of properties being bought, sold, insured or refinanced, last filed a FOIA request in October. It requested “building/demolition permits, records of above ground/underground storage tanks, hazardous materials releases for 1909 Ogden Ave.”
Kruszynski said Lisle is timely in its responses and efficient in its use of e-mail responses. She said she’s had experiences with Lisle “a long time ago” where she had to make an appointment with the village to get printed FOIA materials. Sometimes, she said, the material would be given on microfilm.
“I was really pleasantly surprised by the FOIA process in Lisle,” Kruszynski said of the current system.
According to DuPage County Forest Preserve board of commissioners president Dewey Pierotti, the forest preserve district is supporting statewide changes to FOIA processes that would make it mandatory to publicly list those who make FOIA requests and charge fees for requests that demand information from off-site storage facilities—two things that already occur in Lisle.
Pierotti also said there would be more of an effort to redact more personal information from FOIA-requested documents in light of "frivolous" requests, such as a list of subcsribers to the district's official magazine. He said at some point, common sense has to come into play.
Pierotti said charges would only apply to those who did not pick up their requested documents.
"We think we’re trying to make the scales of justice equal," Pierotti said. "We make certain we have total transparency but at the same time protecting the privacy of various individuals."
According to Pierotti, the set of FOIA changes was passed as a resolution by the forest preserve board, but its only a proposal at this point to the state legislature. He knew of no time frame for state-wide consideration.
Kruszynski and Zajdel both said they have been charged for certain FOIA requests in the past. According to Curran, no documents that have been sought by a FOIA request are stored off-site. All records are in village hall, in one of the public works buildings or at the police department.
The only example of off-site documents Curran came up with is when a police officer has a day off after not fully completing a police report and the document is stored on his laptop at home. That would not demand a fee, but perhaps a deadline extension, Curran said.
She said charges only occur when a group of documents or records being given in response to a FOIA request is too large to e-mail. The person filing the request would then be charged for the price of a CD to scan the information onto. Curran said each CD costs 50 cents.
"We really don’t charge much," Curran said. "[The off-site fee] wouldn’t be a concern for us, at least not at this point. Ten years down the road we may have some off-site."
The FOIA change would also allow more redacting of personal information for privacy’s sake.
Zajdel said she has no problem, in principle, with paying fees. But she worries about governing bodies taking advantage of the fee system.
“Suddenly, they’ll be storing all of the documents off site,” Zajdel said. “It creates a disincentive to FOIA documents for the cost and makes an incentive for a corrupt body to put all its documents off site.”
Proposed changes aside, Zajdel said she has a problem with Lisle’s legal documents being withheld “across the board” based on attorney-client privilege exemption—Section 7(1)(m) of the FOIA. Unless it pertains to a current lawsuit, Zajdel said, the information should be available.
Zajdel called out another exemption, 7(1)(f), which protects from FOIA request “preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, memoranda and other records in which opinions are expressed, or policies or actions are formulated.”
“It’s a rather vague, catch-all place to try and not provide documents to the public,” she said.
Kruszynski said Chicago-area municipalities, in her experience, make available less information online compared to western metros like Phoenix and those in California, where, for example, building records are among the items available online. In Lisle, one has to request those documents.
“It would be nice if all that stuff is available,” Kruszynski said. “Things I’m looking for seem fairly innocuous. It’s not sensitive information I don’t think… It makes things so much easier to not have to fill out the form, make sure it’s the right form, make sure it goes to right person and make sure they got it.”
Currently, Curran said, the village posts meeting agendas, minutes, all ordinances and resolutions online.
Curran said widespread distribution of information via the Web is not feasible. The scanning and address-redacting that would be needed to put up building permits, Curran said, would necessitate a new staff hire.
“We can’t put everything online. We don’t have the room, we don’t have the time to do that, and we don’t have the staff available,” Curran said.