Government treats FOIA as a suggestion, not law
7/31/2012 9:17 PM - Letters to the Editor - The Madison St. Claire Record
To the Editor:
On September 26, 27, and 30, 2011, I filed three requests for public documents to the Village of Caseyville through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. I was simply wanting to see a contract to a public works project that was funded through a county grant. Little did I realize what I would have to personally endure for exercising my rights as a citizen. But as I often hear from veterans, "Freedom is not free."
The documents I requested were pretty mundane in nature, but asking a few harmless questions touched off a firestorm in the Village of Caseyville. The first surprise I received was having an obviously angry village trustee follow me out onto the parking lot and without my consent, start photographing me as I left. I was then unfairly labeled a recurrent requester, a designation I came nowhere close to deserving. Then came the assertion that my requests were unduly burdensome.
While it would have been easy to give up. I have to admit that the village trustees' attempt to intimidate me after filing my second document request, did stiffen my resolve. Instead of giving up, I made the decision to take my cause to my fellow citizens and began speaking to taxpayer watchdog organizations.
In February 2012 I received a favorable determination from the Illinois Attorney General. I thought the battle was over. It was not.
The village attorney had known something all along that I did not. The only way I would be able to force compliance was to sue the village in circuit court. So in essence, the only way a citizen has real access to public documents is if they have the money to sue. In my case, I was fortunate to have a lot of public support from other like minded citizens. Citizens who volunteered to pay my legal fees to pursue a municipality in what we all considered willful and intentional violations of the law.
To that end, I have come to the conclusion that the Freedom of Information laws are great "window dressing" for politicians, but the reality is that these laws are mere suggestions to public officials unless a citizen is of significant means and is able to pay to have the law enforced.
So comes the question: Does the average citizen really have access to public documents? My answer is no. My now, very educated opinion is that until criminal provisions are put into place, government entities will continue to treat The Freedom of Information Act like a "suggestion" instead of a right to every citizen.
In response to Chris Wetterich’s March 16 story, “Vast majority of FOIA requests coming from the public,” the Illinois Freedom of Information Act is an extremely important tool for the people in Illinois who participate in our democracy through monitoring the activities of their local governments, an indispensable check on our government officials.
The attorney general’s statistics reflecting the public access counselor’s caseload mirror the Citizen Advocacy Center’s experience with assisting members of the public who request records in order to inform themselves of community affairs that affect them, their families and their neighbors.
We routinely assist people who are denied records, where the public body fails to satisfactorily explain why the exception taken applies to the requested records, and which ultimately result in a letter from the public access counselor’s office stating that the requested records should be made public.
Members of the public should be wary of legislative efforts to roll back the FOIA reform enacted in 2010. Since the bill’s passage in 2009, each legislative session has seen several backlash bills aimed at curbing the people’s access to documents that should be made public, and which are routinely made public in states that have stronger FOIA laws.
It’s everybody’s job to stay vigilant so that our FOIA statute remains one of the strongest in the nation.
— Maryam Judar, community lawyer, Citizen Advocacy Center, Elmhurst
On August 26th, 2011, Governor Quinn approved a new bill that adds a new category to the Freedom of Information Act. The bill "establishes procedures that public bodies are to use in responding to requests from recurrent requesters."*
A recurrent requestor is a person that submits a request to the same public body "a minimum of 50 requests for records, a minimum of 15 requests for records within a 30-day period, or a minimum of 7 requests for records within a 7-day period"*, all within 12 months.
Less than one month after Governor Quinn signed the ‘Recurrent Requester’ provision of FOIA, public bodies are invoking it to punish civic participants, as shown in this letter. They combined the number of requests of a husband and wife to say that they are recurrent requesters, and denied their FOIA request.
What is your opinion on this?