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BGA study finds big problems with FOIA, OMA compliance

Thursday, Jan 10, 2019

* Better Government Association

The BGA looked at how the [the attorney general’s Public Access Counselor’s office — or PAC] ruled on 28,270 [Freedom of Information Act] and [Open Meetings Act] requests for review from April 6, 2010 to March 15, 2018. […]

Out of the top 5 public bodies that initially failed to respond to [FOIA] requests — and only responded after the PAC intervened — the Chicago Police Department ranked the highest with 672 requests that it did not respond to during this period. Additionally, there were 6 instances in which the Chicago Police Department did not respond even after PAC intervention during the time period we studied. In fact, the PAC issued a binding opinion as recently as December 31, 2018, based on CPD’s failure to respond to a request even after the PAC intervened. Based on a FOIA request we submitted to CPD recently, it does not appear that anyone at CPD was ever disciplined for these violations.

In our list of the top 5 offenders, the Illinois Department of Corrections ranked second with 519 FOIA violations — that is, they did not respond to 519 FOIA requests. The Illinois State Police ranked third with 200 violations, followed by Chicago Public Schools with 199 violations, and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office with 162 violations. Overall, there were over 4,600 of these instances for all public bodies across the state during the time period we examined. […]

The BGA examined the frequency with which public bodies claimed a FOIA exemption that was found to be improper from April 6, 2010, to March 15, 2018. The PAC Office determined that public bodies had asserted incorrect exemptions 1,345 times — approximately 30 percent of the times in which the PAC issued a substantive determination on an exemption claim. […]

According to the PAC data, out of the top 14 public bodies that incorrectly applied exemptions to deny FOIA requests, the City of East St. Louis was in violation 100 percent of the time, the University of Illinois 63 percent of the time, the City of Joliet following closely at 58 percent of the time, the Illinois Department of Central Management Services and the Illinois Department of Transportation both 46 percent of the time, and the Chicago Police Department 43 percent of the time. […]

The BGA also looked at the PAC dataset for entries on the Open Meetings Act and determined the frequency with which public bodies violated OMA or did not violate OMA, according to PAC. […]

Between April 2010 and March 2018, the PAC Office reviewed 717 OMA requests and found that public bodies violated the Open Meetings Act approximately 42 percent of the time. There were 301 instances in which the PAC determined that the public bodies’ denial of open meeting records violated OMA and 416 instances in which PAC decided the public bodies’ actions were not in violation of OMA.

* From the attorney general’s PAC office

“Despite years of work to change the culture of secrecy in Illinois government, the BGA’s findings show that many government offices still routinely disregard their obligation to provide access to government records,” the statement read. “The role of the Public Access Counselor is to resolve open records disputes, and we devote thousands of hours to doing that every year. But, as these findings demonstrate, far too often, government offices are choosing to ignore the law and working to thwart the Public Access Counselor.”

- Posted by Rich Miller        

9 Comments »
  1. - Anon - Thursday, Jan 10, 19 @ 4:45 pm:

    I’ve submitted several FOIA requests that have been ignored by state agencies.

    Fun times.


  2. - Anon - Thursday, Jan 10, 19 @ 5:53 pm:

    Well….thwart the PAC. That’s baloney. As someone who works with FOIA every day, no one is actively working to “thwart” the PAC. My guess is that it mostly deals with arcane submittal and tracking systems and lack of training. But, of course, it’s a conspiracy to the BGA. It should be better in terms of compliance, but taking the BGA perspective is insulting.


  3. - Amalia - Thursday, Jan 10, 19 @ 6:09 pm:

    There are some entities that are noncompliant by design or attitude. then there is another problem…volume. I’d like someone to tally the number of times one person or one entity did a FOIA for one governmental unit. Not how many times the BGA was in action all over the place, but how many times one group or person requested from one source. Some people and entities are specializing in burying governmental units with requests for information. This takes up lots of time. Some of the requests are for analyzing and aggregating information in ways that the government does not do. I’m all for transparency, but with some groups and people, it seems like a game of stopping the business of transparency.


  4. - City Zen - Thursday, Jan 10, 19 @ 6:59 pm:

    I’ve filed many FOIA requests with different levels of government with mostly good results. Most units are quite responsive, especially the pension funds. There have been a couple of instances with the state where the information provided didn’t match what I found myself, which makes me think they didn’t understand the request but were reluctant to ask for clarification. Plus, when my FOIA request revealed an entity in violation, no one on the other end seemed all to concerned to pursue the matter further.

    The thing to remember is these people on the other end of your FOIA request are human. Be clear and courteous. Also, if your request isn’t urgent, indicate as such so the agency can prioritize accordingly. Your pet project is not the center of anyone’s universe but your own.


  5. - Three Dimensional Checkers - Thursday, Jan 10, 19 @ 7:09 pm:

    It can be very hard for a FOIA officer to meet the statutory deadlines (2 weeks). When you consider that FOIA requests that take under about 15 hours to complete are not unduly burdensome under the law, it is easy to seek how a few requests will take up the FOIA officer’s time and create a backlog. Plus, in most operations the higher ups want to know and understand what goes out. Many requests are very complicated and can impact more people and entities than just the public body the request is directed towards. It all becomes complicated and time consuming pretty quickly.


  6. - Deadbeat Conservative - Thursday, Jan 10, 19 @ 7:24 pm:

    =The thing to remember is these people on the other end of your FOIA request are human.=

    CZ humanizing public workers? CZ must be getting soft.


  7. - West Side the Best Side - Thursday, Jan 10, 19 @ 10:01 pm:

    Maybe filing an FOIA under “Anon” might not be the best way to get info.


  8. - TheInvisibleMan - Thursday, Jan 10, 19 @ 11:11 pm:

    ===Some people and entities are specializing in burying governmental units with requests for information. This takes up lots of time.===

    You know, if they posted this information on their own, they wouldn’t be so “buried” with requests for the information they have. Publishing documents online is very simple and not at all labor intensive.

    == Some of the requests are for analyzing and aggregating information in ways that the government does not do==

    Then that’s a denial, and a public body is fully within its right to do that.

    The law is very clear that a FOIA can not be a request for data that does not exist. i.e. would need to be produced from an analysis of existing data. If the public body does not already have that data, by already producing it for themselves prior to being asked for it,
    they are not obligated to do it.

    Sounds like someone is upset that all those dirty plebs can ask for documentation about what someone is doing. Maybe people don’t trust you for some reason.


  9. - Just Observing - Friday, Jan 11, 19 @ 8:57 am:

    I have significant experience using the FOIA across hundreds of Illinois public bodies, and also making use of the PAC.

    1. Many public bodies are efficient and forthcoming in their responses.

    2. Many public bodies are just grossly ignorant of the FOIA and their obligations.

    3. Many public bodies are not ignorant of the FOIA but purposely try to obstruct and complicate FOIA requests.

    4. The PAC does wonderful work and is a good advocate for the citizen, but their process is overly bureaucratic and bogged-down by legal processes, and often they just don’t even follow-through and close up cases. I don’t know if its a staffing issue or what, but the PAC needs to move faster and in a more efficient way.


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