To the Editor:
In the recent article “Why can FOIA requests cost so much?” (Kane County Chronicle; April 16, 2014) Geneva City Administrator Mary McKittrick is quoted as saying she has spoken to state legislators and " ... they will not address the problems of FOIA for fear of being branded by the media of not wanting ‘transparency’ or not supporting an ‘open government.’" Later in the article, she states that " ... 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.”
The purpose of FOIA is to increase transparency and accountability at all levels of government. The statements of purpose in FOIA are unequivocal and were part of a thoughtful reform implemented in 2010. The statute states that, “Such access is necessary to enable the people to fulfill their duties of discussing public issues fully and freely, making informed political judgments and monitoring government to ensure that it is being conducted in the public interest." The FOIA addresses costs in several ways. First, public bodies can invoke the unduly burdensome provision for such requests, and the provision requires a public body to work with the requester to narrow the scope of the request so that it is manageable.
Second, FOIA doesn’t necessarily require public bodies to invoke any of its narrow exceptions and withhold or redact records. The Illinois FOIA statute states “ ... that all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts and policies of those who represent them as public officials and public employees consistent with the terms of [the Freedom of Information Act].” The presumption in FOIA favors disclosure: “All records in the custody or possession of a public body are presumed to be open to inspection or copying.” Public bodies can prevent “make work” situations by using the exceptions infrequently and acting in accordance with the clear intent of the law. Furthermore, public bodies should take proactive measures and reduce costs by making records easily accessible by the public.
The cost of doing government business is complying with the laws of the state of Illinois, and that includes FOIA. Tax dollars put to work in engaging the public in government decision-making are tax dollars well spent.
Geneva native and community lawyer with the Citizen Advocacy Center