Illinois City Struggles with Growing FOIA Requests

Waukegan has proposed an ordinance to set the maximum fees allowed under the state's Freedom of Information Act, at a time when public record requests from social media are on the rise.

by Emily K. Coleman, Lake County News-Sun, Ill. / August 9, 2017
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(TNS) -- Proposed changes to how the city of Waukegan charges for public records requests led to questions Monday evening about whether the city should even be charging for the records, and what would happen if someone couldn't afford to pay.

 

The proposed ordinance would have brought the city in line with the maximum fees allowed under the state's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), City Attorney Bob Long said during a Monday committee meeting.

The law was amended in 2014 by the state legislature to allow municipalities to charge commercial requesters more, and create a new class of requester who can be charged fees for records provided electronically.

But because the ordinance hadn't been updated since those changes, some of the fees laid out in the city's ordinance are higher than what is allowed by law, so the city had just stopped charging fees, Long said.

"If that is the will of the City Council to provide this information for free, that's fine," he said. "I don't have a legal issue with that. It's just, whatever we do administratively should match up with the directions (of the council), because you're the legislative body that tells the folks what they're supposed to do."

The proposed changes also included guidelines for the City Clerk's Office to consider when deciding whether to grant a waiver to requesters claiming to be with the media, or asking for a waiver because the information is in the public interest, according to a memo written by attorney Douglas Dorando to the council.

The news media designation is "of particular consternation" for the city because some people requesting that label include "people who simply post their FOIA responses to their social media accounts," or have blogs with "extremely small readerships," Dorando said in the memo.

The proposed changes were approved by a subcommittee of the City Council in a 3-2 vote directly ahead of Monday's council meeting, but the committee's chairman, Ald. Greg Moisio, asked during the council meeting that the proposal be tabled.

Moisio was joined by aldermen William Valko, 8th, and Edith Newsome, 5th, in voting for the changes during the judiciary committee meeting. Aldermen Ann Taylor, 9th, and Larry TenPas, 6th, voted no.

"This is by no means the City Council trying to monkey with FOIA," Moisio said. "They're trying to button it up. But there are still some questions and concerns, so I am going to table that until another meeting."

His move followed concerns raised by aldermen during the committee meeting and members of the public during the council's public comment period.

Mary Blair-Moore, a 6th Ward resident and member of Citizens for Progress, was one of three people to raise issues with the proposal Monday evening.

"This act has often been described as that law that keeps citizens in the know about their government," she said. "Charging for this information (makes it) cease to be a right and makes it seem as though we have been given a privilege to hold our elected and appointed officials accountable, as well as giving us the opportunity to better understand the decision-making process while engaging public participation in politics."

Ald. David Villalobos, 4th, raised a similar concern and pointed to some of the fees associated with requests deemed "voluminous."

A voluminous request would have to be one that asks for five different categories of records; a combination of requests submitted within 20 business days that meets that definition; or a request that requires the compilation of more than 500 pages of documents.

For such a request, the city is allowed to charge up to $100 for electronic records, something it's not normally able to do. The actual fee would depend on the size of the electronic files and their type.

That's an "enormous amount of data that they're asking for" in those situations, Long said, adding that the city would get maybe one or two of those requests a year.

Two aldermen on the committee also questioned what would happen if someone were unable to pay the fees.

The council could decide to grant the city clerk the ability to administer hardship waivers, Long said. The public also always has the option to seek a waiver from the council itself.

The proposal comes at a time when the city is seeing the number of requests it receives "increasing constantly," Long said. Mayor Sam Cunningham, who took office in May, also directed city departments to make frequently requested documents more accessible, so that FOIA requests are not necessary.

"It needs to be buttoned up, and I know the body of FOIA requests has increased dramatically," Moisio said. "I'm all for FOIA. We all work for the people. They want to know what's going on. It's fine. It's their right. Just understand it costs. It's not free."

©2017 the Lake County News-Sun (Lake County, Ill.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.