How to get answers from public officials
BY STEVE METSCH Mar 17, 2010
Illinois' strengthened Freedom of Information Act has been in effect for less than three full months, and already hundreds of members of the public have turned to the attorney general's office for help in records disputes, according to a new report.
"Our goal is to ensure transparency at all levels of government and, as a result, to establish a new standard of accountability and openness in conducting the people's business" Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said in a written statement. "Members of the public are already taking advantage of the new process in place for ensuring transparency."
Among other things, the revamped law shortened from seven to five days the time government agencies have to reply to records requests. It also said government agencies may not charge money for the first 50 pages of documents, and public agencies, if asked, must provide records electronically if they're maintained that way.
For people who hit roadblocks seeking access to government records or public meetings, there is a solution.
The attorney general's office is authorized to make binding decisions when it comes to open records or meetings disputes, spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said. A request for review has to be filed within 60 days of the denial of the FOIA request or the conduct that is alleged to have violated the Open Meetings Act. Requests can be submitted by mail or e-mail.
Since Jan. 1, when the law took effect, members of the media and the public have asked the attorney general's office 273 times to weigh in on disputes involving open records or meetings, according to the attorney general's report released this week.
Public bodies, meanwhile, have asked the attorney general's office for authorization on their decisions 394 times.
This year, in a reflection of renewed interest in the Freedom of Information Act, or perhaps an attempt to not be in violation, there's been plenty of interest in what to do or not do.
A total of 5,922 people have registered and taken online training on how to comply with the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act, Smith said.
"That's a tremendous number, but I'm not surprised because there's a lot of interest and concern with how the law is complied with," said Cara Smith, the public access counselor for the attorney general's office..
This week, in honor of a national effort to promote government openness known as Sunshine Week, the SouthtownStar has taken a look at how the new law is being implemented across the Southland. The newspaper tested 18 local governments and 25 school districts in the Southland.
As part of the review, the newspaper asked local governments for salary information about employees, including their names and birthdates. Six towns and five school districts provided employee birthdates, while 11 towns and 14 school districts did not.
Curtis Saindon, FOIA officer at Frankfort School District 157C, followed the law and asked the attorney general's office to weigh in on the district's decision to withhold birthdates. The attorney general's office sided with Saindon.
"We just did what they told us to do," Saindon said. "We're trying to make sure we're following the letter of the law."
If you think a public body has denied your Freedom of Information Act request, you need to ask the attorney general's office for a review. To do that, a written request can be sent by mail, fax or e-mail.
The mailing address is: FOIA Officer John Costello, Public Access Bureau, Office of the Illinois Attorney General, 500 S. Second St., Springfield IL 62706.
The fax is (217) 782-1396. The e-mail address is email@example.com. Visit www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov for more information.
CONTRIBUTING: JOE BIESK, SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY