Is sharing information with public too costly?
By Lauren FitzPatrick and Steve Metsch firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com March 15, 2011 11:32PM
Pat Rea, Tinley Park village clerk, poses with boxes of FOIA requests at the Tinley Park Village Hall Wednesday afternoon March 9, 2011. | Art Vassy~Sun-Times Media
Here are some other details the SouthtownStar’s Freedom of Information analysis found:
Homer Glen had 108 requests, 20 of which came from folks living or working in Homer Glen. The bulk went to the buildings department. Five came from the media.
Out of about 200 requests, Palos Heights denied five, saying the sought-after records didn’t exist.
Tinley Park logged 1,245 requests.
Oak Lawn had 296 total requests, 28 by a single requester.
Mokena had 411 total, nearly 300 of which were requests for police reports from involved parties, insurance companies and attorneys.
Orland Park had 1,098 requests.
Flossmoor had 163 requests, 139 of which were for police reports.
Of the 266 requests filed in Chicago Heights, only 12 were denied.
Palos Park received 72 requests, a little more than one a week.
By the numbers
Statistics from the Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor:
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Requests Breakdown
1,744 requests for review by the counselor
1,295 from members of the public
156 from the media
293 from other entities
3,278 pre-authorization requests from public bodies to deny FOIA requests
265 pre-authorization requests originated from media FOIA requests
The office also conducted 62 trainings statewide in 2010, and has trained more than 17,000 FOIA officers since the law was enacted.
Updated: January 23, 2012 2:02AM
Tinley Park Village Clerk Pat Rea sighed at the paper-stuffed boxes stacked on a table in the village hall.
Their contents — the fruit of a year’s worth of Freedom of Information Act requests — have cost the village excess time and money, he says. Consider it the public price of government transparency: more than 300 hours in labor and $13,000.
In the second year Illinois’ updated Freedom of Information law has been in effect, Tinley Park perhaps has been the Southland’s most vocal municipality complaining about the expense and burden of complying with the law. Beginning in April, the village will begin posting online the names of people who submit Freedom of Information Act requests, what they’re looking for and how much time and cost went into fulfilling them.
“After the FOIA law changed last year, the number of FOIAs went up,” Rea said.
So who’s asking for what, and how burdensome are the requests?
In honor of Sunshine Week, a week designated to promote government transparency, the SouthtownStar requested the FOIA logs, from March 1, 2010, to Feb. 28, 2011, of 12 towns throughout the Southland. Here’s what the analysis found:
Tinley Park, received 1,245 requests during the 12-month time frame, the highest number among the towns questioned by the newspaper. That’s partly because the village of about 56,000 requires anyone looking at the police blotter to fill out a form. Orland Park, meanwhile, had 1,098 total FOIA requests.
Homer Glen had 108, about a tenth of the larger suburbs. And tiny Palos Park had 72, just over one per week, compared to one man in Chicago Heights who alone filed 85 requests.
Private citizens asked for reports from their own car crashes to those about break-ins at their homes. The Army and the Navy requested specific police reports, too, presumably for recruits.
Realtors inquired about liens on properties.
And the same names appeared across many of the suburbs from business owners who use the data to solicit customers. Several requesters asked monthly for new building permit data.
That’s typical, Oak Lawn Village Clerk Jane Quinlan said.
Some communities, like Orland Park and Homer Glen, keep their records electronically and are easier to access.
“I think people are asking for more information because they want to know what’s happening,” Oak Lawn deputy clerk Yelena Bose said. “Everything is public. We aren’t trying to hide anything, but it’s still a lot of work on our part”
Others, like Oak Lawn and Chicago Heights, do not, adding time, they say, to their existing duties.
Quinlan’s staff manages to meet the five-day deadline in most cases, the analysis found.
“It’s overwhelming, but it’s our job,” she said.
But public records advocates say public bodies had gotten off easy for years, a charge Rea agreed with.
“The old law was being ignored by some governments, which is wrong,” Rea said.
This year, the law is again under attack by special interests looking to exempt more records from public view. About 15 bills are currently in the statehouse pertaining to the names of people with gun permits and seeking to limit the number of requests any member of the public can file.
Public records advocates say Illinois has just caught up with the rest of the country. The new law didn’t create new work for municipalities; it just held them accountable to what they should have been doing all along.
“They had it really good in Illinois,” said Josh Sharp, of the Illinois Press Association. “They could take your FOIA request and throw it in the trash and say, ‘Sue us.’ That was your option.
“We’re up to speed with everybody else, and you’re still seeing that unfortunate Illinois culture of secrecy continuing to fight over certain exemptions of FOIA.”
And there are towns that could save money by leaving their attorneys out of routine FOIA requests, he said.
“It’s probably so expensive for them, they should sit down with all their law firms charging exorbitant rates,” he said.
Illinois lawmakers revamped the state’s FOIA law to cut the maximum response time a government agency has from seven to five working days. The changes also gave a public access counselor in the attorney general’s office binding power to determine if records should be released and imposed a $5,000 fine on government agencies that failed to comply with the law.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Rea said.
Still, the penalty “brings a different type of tension” to fulfilling a FOIA request, he said.
And Rea does have a problem with employees’ time spent rounding up information. That’s why he’s now pushing for a library in Tinley Park’s village hall where residents can look up ordinances, codes and records. And why he hopes to make more information available on the village’s Web site.
Doing both, he said, could reduce requests by about 25 percent.
But the library won’t help with requests like the one Tinley Park received for the records of village employees’ publicly issued cell phones. That one took 59 hours to complete, or $2,035 at the village’s average salary, Rea said.
The man who filed that request, attorney and Tinley Park resident Steve Eberhardt, chuckled when told the village had singled out his request as time-consuming.
“These are tough times. Everybody, including me, has to buy more with less. It’s unfair that the village can spend the taxpayers’ money without question,” Eberhardt said. “Somebody has to ask questions.”
Contributing: Bob Rakow