Kadner: A controversy that shouldn’t exist
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org June 30, 2014 7:40PM
State Rep. Robert Rita | Sun-Times Media file photo
Updated: August 2, 2014 6:10AM
Tinley Park was at the heart of a controversial change in Illinois’ freedom of information law that was vetoed by Gov. Pat Quinn.
The FOI law mandates what public documents the public is entitled to and how governments must comply with requests for that information.
State Rep. Robert Rita, D-Blue Island, was a chief sponsor of the measure that generated outrage among good-government groups by increasing the amount of time that a government could take to respond to “voluminous” requests and also allowing governments to charge as much as $100 in certain cases.
Rita said he sponsored the bill because of problems encountered by Tinley Park in complying with the law, but other legislators said their municipalities had also complained about the current law.
As someone who participated in a working group that developed the current FOI law in Illinois, I resent the very notion that people have to file a request for a public document.
Every piece of public information these days should be available online because almost every government agency does its business through computer transactions, and paperwork that isn’t electronically transmitted usually is scanned and filed in a computer.
So when I telephoned Tinley Park Clerk Patrick Rea, the official keeper of public documents in that suburb, I was prepared for a rather antagonistic discussion.
Instead, Rea caught me off guard by saying Tinley Park’s desire is to comply with every request for public records and would like to make them all available online so people can access them without submitting an official request.
“We receive between 4.5 million and 5 million emails, cellphone calls, land line calls and written documents each year,” Rea said. “Those are all documents that can be requested under the freedom of information law. And we’ve gotten what we call sweeping requests, for hundreds of thousands of items under the FOI law.”
Rea said, in theory, that shouldn’t be a problem despite the massive number of documents that must be reviewed.
“The problem is that we have a 21st century law and in many cases are dealing with 19th century technology,” he said. “By that I mean while all this information should be on computer, and much of it is, we still have to go through each document in many cases to redact information that is exempt from distribution under other laws that protect privacy.”
Rea mentioned Social Security numbers, the names of juveniles in reports, home addresses and other personal or financial information.
“To redact that information, which means using a black magic marker to draw a line over the information, takes hundreds of hours of time,” he said.
In the first three months of this year alone, Rea said, he has documented 382 hours of employee time in responding to FOI requests.
“But the position of Tinley Park is that we will respond and have always responded to every FOI request,” he said. “We believe in transparency.
“To achieve that goal, we sent a letter to the Illinois attorney general asking that all government documents be standardized so that any information that must be redacted would be contained, for example, in box five of every form.
“Then, with a computer program, that information could automatically be placed on our website, and anyone looking for it would be able to download the documents they want without filing a freedom of information request.”
That sounded a lot more reasonable than the law passed by the Legislature, which would eventually have been used to delay, confuse and obstruct requests for information.
How do I know that?
Because I’ve spent years working with citizens trying to get public documents, arguing with government officials who refuse those requests and writing about many of those situations.
In some cases, there’s confusion about what the law says and how a public official interprets it. But in many instances, government officials are trying to avoid complying with the law because they’ve either committed a crime or are attempting to conceal a backroom deal.
The new FOI law, which went into effect in 2010, was an improvement over the previous one but still deeply flawed.
By 2011, lobbyists representing various government groups were at work writing revisions, creating new exemptions and making it harder to get public information.
There are real problems with municipalities trying to meet the FOI demands of businesses, academic institutions, the news media and certain citizen activists who request large amounts of information that can total hundreds of thousands of pages.
But we are in the computer age, and much of that information can sometimes be transmitted electronically with the push of a button.
In defense of citizen watchdogs, I would point out that governments create reams of paperwork. And uncooperative public officials can force a citizen to file numerous requests for thousands of pages of documents when a little guidance could reduce the size of the request, the amount of paperwork and the time involved.
Rea said Tinley Park never received a response from the attorney general’s office to its request for standardized government forms, but the village is now working with a consultant to try to achieve the same goal.
“When we’re close to getting something done, I plan to have our three or four most frequent FOI filers come in, sit down with the consultant and work out the finer points between them,” he said.
“If they want to block out their names, so that we can’t identify them online, that’s fine with me,” Rea said. “I just want to get the information out there and reduce the amount of government time and money spent, while making the process as open as possible to everyone.”
And that, in theory, is how it should be done.