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*** UPDATED x1 - Quinn vetoes bill *** Both sides of the fight

Friday, Jun 27, 2014

*** UPDATE *** Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed the bill late Friday afternoon. The veto message is here.

[ *** End Of Update *** ]

* The Better Government Association wants Gov. Pat Quinn to veto this bill

On the all-important issue of government transparency, lawmakers took a giant step backwards with uncharacteristic speed.

A weakening of our most valuable transparency tool, the Freedom of Information Act, breezed through both chambers in a single week in May.

Motivated by suburban government complaints about the strain of responding to comprehensive FOIA requests, lawmakers passed HB3796, which gives municipalities additional time to respond to so-called “voluminous” requests from citizens, and lets them charge the FOIA filers up to $100.

The extra time’s not a deal-breaker, but the fees are arbitrary and unreasonably high, which seriously undermines the ability of regular citizens to access the public information they’re entitled to.

* Look, there are some strange people out there who file loads of FOIA requests. It has become a problem for some local governments, and they’re not all in the suburbs

“We actually do hear from quite a few (municipalities),” said Joe Schatteman, who handles FOIA issues for the Illinois Municipal League, which supported the bill.

“There was a central Illinois community that came to our office, and they brought this volume of requests that this one person had,” said Schatteman, who also is a Chatham village trustee. “It was a community that had two staff people. In order for them to fill these FOIA requests, they had to pay these two staff people overtime. The other portion of their job duties when unfulfilled for two or three weeks. When it gets to a point of disruption of government services for the general good, that’s when we have concerns.”

[Sponsoring Rep. Bob Rita] said he is trying to address a problem faced by Tinley Park, a city in his House district.

“They get an enormous amount of requests in for enormous amounts of data or information through electronic format,” Rita said. Current FOIA law does not allow cities to charge fees for information delivered in electronic format.

“I’ve seen some of the requests,” Rita said. “It’s like give me every email between Employee A and Employee B and Employee C for the last four years. They’ve had some real issues with the same person continuously asking for enormous amounts of information.”

* But I do agree with these aspects of the Illinois Policy Institute’s otherwise hyperbolic objections

HB 3786 has an incredibly narrow definition of what constitutes a voluminous requestor.

“(h) ‘Voluminous request’ means a request that: (i) includes more than 5 individual requests for more than 5 different categories of records or a combination of individual requests that total request for more than 5 different categories of records in a period of 20 business days; or (ii) requires the compilation of more than 500 letter or legal-sized pages of public records unless a single requested record exceeds 500 pages.”

Government documents can be quite long. A single board packet for a modestly sized municipality in Illinois can easily total 200 to 300 pages. Ask for two or three board packets and you are now considered a voluminous requestor.

If a citizen watchdog simply asked for all of the documents in our 10-Point Transparency Checklist, the law would allow public bodies to immediately label them as a voluminous requestor.

And the financial implications of the bill would be a real burden for most citizen requesters.

If the electronic record is in PDF format, a $100 charge would be leveed if it takes up more than 160 megabytes of data space. If it isn’t in PDF format, requesters could be charged up to $100 for more than 4 megabytes of data.

For context, Google Drive gives users 15 gigabytes of cloud storage – that’s 15,360 megabytes – for free.

Currently, for electronic requests, public bodies are only allowed to charge the cost of the recording medium to transmit the data, which is usually $1 or less. The proposed charge of up to $100 represents a potential 10,000 percent increase in the cost of a citizen making a simple FOIA request.

* The bill had wide bipartisan support in both chambers. This reflects the undeniable fact that “voluminous requesters” are a real problem in some communities.

But the fees are way too high and the trigger is way too low. There should be a compromise here. Quinn ought to AV the bill.

* Meanwhile...

Around 30 people showed up at a Clark County Park District Board meeting in May, hoping to speak openly about recent park-related controversies. After most sat through a 2-1/2 hour closed session, the board returned to open session only to inform the crowd that they would not be allowed to speak to board members.

That’s when John Kraft, a member of a local watchdog group, sprang into action. Rising to his feet, Kraft informed the entire board that he was placing them under citizen’s arrest for violating the Illinois Open Meetings Act, specifically the provision that ensures the public can address their elected representatives at an official meeting.

Wow. But it gets even better

For “eight or nine months” Kraft says he’s been holding a printout of the citizen’s arrest statute in his wallet — just in case he had to invoke it against a public board that failed to allow public comment. […]

Clark County Sheriff Jerry Parsley personally responded to the scene that night, because he knew it was a heated situation. He told the BGA that Kraft handled the citizen’s arrest responsibly, and the board was definitely in violation of the Open Meetings Act by not allowing the public to speak.

“It’s not that they should have. They’re mandated to,” Parsley said. “The people need to have their voice. It’s not a dictatorship. It’s a democracy.”

Good for the sheriff.

* So, while some citizens may be making a nuisance of themselves just to do it, it’s important to remember that local governments have a very bad habit of breaking these very clear state laws

A citizen’s arrest may be rare, but Open Meetings Act violations are a widespread problem in Illinois. The Illinois attorney general’s office says it fielded nearly 400 complaints in 2013. Many of those ended in re-training of public officials in violation, a spokeswoman said.

In fact, the spokeswoman said that in the Clark County Park District Board’s case, all seven board members were up-to-date on required Open Meetings Act training provided through the attorney general’s office.


- Posted by Rich Miller        

  1. - CirularFiringSquad - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 11:33 am:

    Generally anything HandOut Andy Shaw wants is bad news so PQ should sign this bill fact. If you want to avoid the Clark Co. whack jobs don’t drive I-70 to Terre Haute.
    FOI mostly benefits lazy reporters who cannot learn to develop sources

  2. - Bill White - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 11:41 am:

    Here is an “interesting” FOIA situation from Massachusetts involving public-private entities:

    == [A] number of SWAT teams in the Bay State are operated by what are called law enforcement councils, or LECs. These LECs are funded by several police agencies in a given geographic area and overseen by an executive board, which is usually made up of police chiefs from member police departments.

    * * *

    Some of these LECs have also apparently incorporated as 501(c)(3) organizations. And it’s here that we run into problems. According to the ACLU, the LECs are claiming that the 501(c)(3) status means that they’re private corporations, not government agencies.

    And therefore, they say they’re immune from open records requests. ===

  3. - Anon - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 11:42 am:

    The arrogance of power applies to local officials as well as federal ones.

  4. - Norseman - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 11:43 am:

    New Kraft Rights to be read to a public body.

    • We have the right to not to remain silent at your meeting.
    • Anything we say or do should be used by you in your deliberations.
    • You should consult an attorney on the Open Meetings Act before you cut off speakers or have an attorney present to advise you in the future.
    • If you cannot afford an attorney, the Attorney General has a website that will help with any questions.
    • If you decide to ignore the public wishing to comment without an attorney present, you risk being place under citizen’s arrest or having to answer to the Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor.
    • Knowing and understanding these rights as I have explained them to you, try not to be stupid.

  5. - Bill White - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 11:43 am:

    The arrogance of power [often] applies [more] to local officials [than] federal ones because the stakes at issue can often be trivial, but highly personal.

  6. - thechampaignlife - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 11:46 am:

    Since FOIA allows for anonymous requests, could not a voluminous requestor simply submit multiple smaller requests using different “burner” email accounts to get around this? In fact, a botnet could spam the heck out of a city with FOIA requests that individually are not unduly burdensome but are in aggregate.

  7. - Rich Miller - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 11:50 am:

  8. - Norseman - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 11:56 am:

    Rich - That’s perfect clip!

  9. - LincolnLounger - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 11:59 am:

    The thing that most troubles me with regard to the Clark County Park District thing is that this board was encouraged to bug out by their own attorney. That attorney had to know that was a violation, and she should be held accountable to ARDC.

  10. - Anyone Remember - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 12:01 pm:

    “One bad apple spoils the whole barrel.”

    I’d have a lot more empathy for people like Andy Shaw and Don Craven if they’d address situations like Wapella.

  11. - Upon Further Review - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 12:01 pm:

    I would hate see the Freedom of Information Act weakened in any form. We stopped some dishonest governmental power grabs by making use of FOIA requests before.

  12. - Anonymous - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 12:01 pm:

    Something tells me there’s more to that Clark County story than simply a do-good citizen standing up for what’s right. Small town politics is known to take on a life of its own.

  13. - Kevin Craver - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 12:05 pm:

    Rich, I’m surprised you’re missing the Catch-22 that lawmakers have inserted here.

    Remember that lawmakers added a provision to limit “recurrent requesters.” So in order to not be labeled recurrent, people have had to put all their requests in one FOIA. And now they’ll be “voluminous.”

  14. - DOWNSTATE DEM - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 12:13 pm:

    Governments will always complain about releasing information. It’s the nature of their way. And there are people who are always going to be a pain in the butt, however, to do anything that weakens or lessons the public’s right to know damages the entire foundation and basis for how our society is governed. People must have access and be able to garner information from the governing bodies.

  15. - RNUG - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 12:13 pm:

    Rich, Loved the clip. Yesterday I was actually in Danville, IN and ate lunch at the Mayberry Cafe!

  16. - Arthur Andersen - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 12:30 pm:

    Thanks for that clip. Have been thinking about that moment ever since I read the Clark Co. story.

  17. - Precinct Captain - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 1:23 pm:

    Clark County is a little nutty, but they do have Moonshine burgers.

  18. - Stuff happens - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 1:23 pm:

    Mixed feelings on this one. There are definitely FOIA abusers, but then you get places that answer FOIA requests and redact almost everything useful and you have to start from scratch. Does a redacted page still count towards your page count?

    As far as data storage goes, does this mean that I have a choice of picking lossy or lossless compression? I’d rather get a JPEG at 75% compression embedded into my PDF than one without any compression at all…

    I can see PDF letterhead suddenly becoming very high-res. ;)

  19. - walker - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 1:30 pm:

    There has to be a balance, and some common sense expectations. Most people and press act completely responsibly.

    There are members of the public (a few) who literally want to shut down government for ideological reasons, or who have a personal vendetta against one person in local government, and try to use FOIA as a bludgeon — without any apparent real interest in the topic at hand. “A pain in the butt” doesn’t cover it.

    At some high level it makes sense to begin to share real costs, and get more time to respond. To say that attacks the “public’s right to know” is stretching it.

  20. - x ace - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 2:56 pm:

    Watched the Clark County Video :
    The Board Lawyer comes across bad.
    Not ARDC bad, but ill-informed , unprepared , and lack of ability to function under fire bad.
    And the Watchdogs . although right, definitely had some ” Gomer” in them.
    Whole thing pretty comical.

  21. - yinn - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 3:10 pm:

    Bill White brings up an interesting development, that of de facto government committees/commissions incorporating as not-for-profits even though they are receiving public money for their operations. Some unbelievable boondoggles have arisen from these private brain trusts, and by the time the public is aware it’s like trying to stop a freight train.

    Yes, this happens in Illinois. Case law has established its illegality and you can win if you sue, but very few citizen requesters have the time and money.

    On the FOIA front I’d like to point out that many non-police FOIA requests, at least on the municipal and county levels, are commercial in nature and these freebies stand to benefit businesses in their real estate and other transactions. How bout we take a look at those before we bludgeon the civilians again.

    Also, sometimes it’s necessary to be “frequent” or “voluminous” in order to really get to the bottom of something, especially for citizen requesters who do not have the resources media do.

  22. - Seriously - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 3:35 pm:

    He called 911??? This is an emergency number!!!! Was this an emergency, really???? A Park Board violated the OMA…..isnthisnthe new standard for 911 calls? A very proud John “Gomer” Kraft moment indeed.

  23. - Bruce Rushton - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 3:45 pm:

    Your analysis of stuff is generally spot on, Rich, but in this case not. An AV isn’t the answer here, the bill needs to be tossed on the dung heap. You don’t punish the entire state for what some may see as excesses of a few. The problem here, I think, is that Illinois has been steeped in a culture of secrecy for so long that it cannot fathom what it’s like to operate government in the open. Myriad states have public-record laws that allow much more sunshine than the one in Illinois, and the sky hasn’t fallen in those states. The answer, I think, is to reduce the number of exemptions–simplify the statute–so that public bodies don’t get all worked up over whether they should or should not make something public. The law as written is fraught with internal inconsistencies. On the one hand, it says that release of information bearing on the public duties of public employees shall not be considered an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. On the other, the general assembly, thanks to union lobbyists, has exempted performance evaluations from disclosure. Someone explain to me how that dovetails. And spare the “well, how would you like it if your performance evaluation was a public record.” I don’t work for the government, and so it is a moot point. Performance evaluations are public in other states and no one bats an eye. Then there is 7(1)(f), the mother of all loopholes when it comes to government transparency.

    We don’t need to re-invent the wheel here. We would do well to emulate Florida, which has some of the best public-records statutes in the nation. In Arizona, the law is only a paragraph or two–the rules have developed from case law, with the statute serving as a guiding principle, for lack of a better word.

    We need to build on and strengthen the changes that were made a few years ago, not go backwards, and that’s what’s been happening these past few years. Chip away, chip away, chip away, then you wake up one day to find that we’re right back where we started from, when public bodies violated the law without fear of consequences. No one should pretend that going from pitch dark to dusk (and that’s where I’d put Illinois today in terms of transparency) is, or would be, easy. Going to daylight is going to be even tougher. But it is possible, we only need look to states like Washington and Arizona and Florida to see that it is possible. And we should demand no less here in Illinois.

  24. - Bruce Rushton - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 3:54 pm:

    And another thing.

    The sheriff should’ve walked his talk and arrested those clowns. Violations of the OMA can be prosecuted as felonies–you can look it up–and I’d argue that there are a lot more victims when the OMA is broken than when a liquor store gets robbed. Maybe if state’s attorneys started charging these scofflaws, which would put their pensions at risk, we’d see fewer violations.

  25. - Anonymous - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 3:58 pm:

    Seriously, people, chill out on the who ARDC allegations. If the standard for ARDC sanction is as low as you want it, an attorney disagreeing with the sheriff on a matter (because we likely do not know the entire story here), most attorneys would be written up.

  26. - Anyone Remember - Friday, Jun 27, 14 @ 4:04 pm:

    Bruce Rushton
    = … what some may see as excesses of a few.=

    In Wapella there was no “see” - it “was” an excess. To stop financial record FOIAs, the Village’s monthly checking statement and copies of checks were put online. As a result, the entire world knew the amount of child support a single employee paid. How does Florida prevent such things?

  27. - logic not emotion - Monday, Jun 30, 14 @ 9:37 am:

    There is a balancing point. I personally supported the proposed legislation and didn’t think it went far enough. There should be openness; but it shouldn’t pose a true financial burden on governments. Gone are the days when most local governmental entities have staff with adequate time to get everything they need to get done done. This just adds to that resource shortage. Therefore, the charges should be adequate to at least cover actual costs and some additional information should not be accessible (classic situation I’m aware of is outfits doing FOIA requests to obtain mineral rights ownership records and then sending those people a check which when endorsed transfers those mineral interests for a very small fraction of their actual value).

    Crassly, I also firmly believe that the activities that need brought to public light take place in situations where the Act doesn’t apply and always will.

  28. - Norseman - Monday, Jun 30, 14 @ 10:50 am:

    Quinn’s veto goes along with his rhetoric, but I found when it came down to FOIA requests his office was not that interested in transparency.

  29. - Bruce Rushton - Monday, Jun 30, 14 @ 1:10 pm:

    A previous comment of mine apparently did not get posted for whatever reason, so I’ll repeat it. As to Anyone Remember’s concern about child support payments, the amount of money paid in child support by non-custodial parents is matter of public record, so I’m not sure what the problem is here.

    As to Logic Not Emotion, we should keep in mind that this is a process, by necessity a long one given Illinois’ horrific record on transparency that dates back decades. Given that record, it is not going to get fixed overnight, and it is not going to be free, but it will, at the end of the day, be worth it. True transparency can save tons of money. When public officials know that someone can look over their shoulders, they tend to act more responsibly, fiscally and in a lot of other ways that ultimately benefit the public.

    The solution, as I suggested earlier, is not to increase charges for obtaining information. The solution is to streamline and simplify the statute to reduced exemptions/loopholes. That’s where a lot of the expense lies as public bodies put a requested record against the law and try to figure out ways to not disclose things.

    One way to save money is to eliminate the public access counselor’s office in the attorney general’s shop. At last check, a couple years ago, they were spending in excess of a half-million dollars annually on an army of lawyers to decipher the law for public officials and requesters alike. That alone is proof, I think, that the law is too complicated. FOIA, in my opinion, is too important to make referees out of elected officials especially in Illinois. No matter the quality of the sitting AG, the job goes to whoever gets the most votes, and that’s a precarious guarantee of openness. In states such as Florida that have strong laws, the attorney general has minimal involvement. At last check, again a few years ago, the Florida AG had one person assigned to FOIA issues, and that person also had responsibilities outside FOIA.

    Producing public records is a fundamental obligation of government. I didn’t say that, the general assembly did when it re-wrote the preamble of the statute a few years ago. We have a long way to go before that statement of obligations becomes reality. We should stay the course until our deeds match our rhetoric.

  30. - DuPage Bard - Monday, Jun 30, 14 @ 3:03 pm:

    @Norseman, have to agree. On the same vein interesting that the largest voices in the House crying about Quinn’s lack of transparency are the same people who voted for this bill.

Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.

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