*** 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.
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.