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Why can FOIA requests cost so much?

Published: Wednesday, April 16, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, April 16, 2014 11:35 a.m. CDT
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(Sandy Bressner – sbressner@shawmedia.com)
Jerry Elliott of Sugar Grove files lots of Freedom of Information Act requests of Kaneland District 302, tracking information on the district's budgets and spending.

Kathy Kapusta filed a Freedom of Information Act request of St. Charles District 303 in December that generated 2,457 pages, took 13 people 88 hours to complete at a cost of $16,740.  

Why did it cost so much? Because, as District 303 spokesman Jim Blaney explained, a lawyer spent 71 of those hours reviewing those pages, that fee was $15,975.

“It was at the board’s request that we include an estimate and the amount of time it takes,” Blaney said. “Also, an estimate of the cost involved preparing it, if it’s over an hour of time.”

Kapusta’s request involved what are called procurement cards, used by school districts and other public bodies. She sought copies of all bills, invoices canceled checks, receipts, supporting documentation and monthly statements relating to a BMO Corporate MasterCard used by the high schools’ principals, administrators and athletic departments, among other items.

Kapusta disputed the cost and how long it took to respond to her request.

“The way I look at it, I think they are intentionally trying to put such a high number on my FOIA request to prevent me and others from looking into their financial records,” Kapusta said. “I went through those pages pretty quickly, and it should have taken no more than a couple of hours to redact, not 71 hours.”

Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act went into effect July 1, 1984, according to the Illinois State Bar Association. And though it has been updated several times since then – the last time in  2010 – its basis remains the same: “Public records” held by “public bodies” are subject to disclosure upon request, unless they are covered by an exemption.

Many public bodies, including District 303, Geneva District 304 and Kaneland District 302, report their FOIA requests, time spent and cost to fulfill them in monthly reports. The City of Geneva reports the requests, time spent to answer them, and whether there was a cost to the requester.

Sugar Grove Township resident Jerry Elliott occasionally files FOIA requests of Kaneland District 302, but usually, he said, he just asks for information if he can’t find it on the district’s website. 

“They never have denied my requests and never complained about how much they cost,” Elliott said. “They have complained that I won’t accept some answers.”

Elliott said he sees significant value in the open records law.

“It goes back to my suspicious nature,” Elliott said. “Anyone in government does not want you to know what is going on and will do any kind of divisive things to keep the information from you.”

Julie-Ann Fuchs, Kaneland’s assistant superintendent for business, said the district complies with all laws associated with FOIA requests.

“The law also limits the amount of time in which we have to respond, which also creates challenges for district staff,” Fuchs said in an email. “While staff are responding to FOIA requests, they are not doing other important or required tasks that often need to be completed in a given timeframe as well.”

Esther Seitz, an attorney with Donald Craven who represents Illinois media in FOIA and open meetings issues, said the burden of fulfilling information requests is the cost of doing business.

“Section one [of the act] articulates the public policy that complying with the FOIA is a primary duty of a public body,” Seitz said. “The legislature means that one of the significant public functions of a public body is to provide public records. If they do not like their job, then get a job in the private sector.”

But Seitz’s opinion may not reflect reality, public officials said.

Geneva City Administrator Mary McKittrick said since the law was updated in 2010, the number of requests has increased.

“Because the law was opened up to commercial requests, combined with the fact that we have to go through the [Illinois] Attorney General’s office if we deny any requests, the time spent by staff on FOIA increased significantly. And we now document the effect on our resources,” McKittrick said in an email.

McKittrick said the city cannot charge the requester for the time spent, even if the information sought is to be used it for a product or marketing for a company.  

“It may not be a lot of money, but all of it is paid for by our citizens,” McKittrick said. “It’s not fair to them to have to pay for marketing a company in another community.”

McKittrick said she spoke to state legislators “but they will not address the problems of FOIA for fear of being branded by the media of not wanting ‘transparency’ or not supporting ‘open government.’ ”

“So, as a result, we have a law that is not in keeping with the spirit in which it was originally written and wastes tax dollars,” McKittrick said. 

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