FOIA in 2010: Growing Pains

Cara Smith, the new Illinois Public Access Counselor, received more than 4,100 calls for help during the first 10 months of her job, which started Jan. 1 when the FOIA took effect.

Many of the issues could have been resolved without contacting her office, Smith said, simply with better communication between information requesters and the public bodies they asked for information.

“Talk,” Smith advised. “You can agree to anything and avoid coming to us.” Journalists and the general public need to be aware that simply limiting the scope of their inquiries simple things such as saying a birthday is not relevant information can speed access to information.

Smith reviewed the first months Oct. 14 at the ninth annual First Amendment Forum, sponsored by the Chicago Headline Club, Chicago Journalists Association, International Press Club of Chicago and IIT-Chicago Kent College of Law, which has a year-old Center for Open Government that helps train people to “blast open the process of government.”

“Much ado about nothing” is how Smith described many of the calls. However, they all took time. Her office has nine lawyers, plus interns and support staff, to handle the calls. Seventy-five percent of the matters arriving at the PAC office have been resolved, she said. Eighty percent of the calls are from the public, not the news media.

Smith believes public bodies generally are trying to “get it right,” but have a steep learning curve. Many times, that means going to her office with “everything.” Despite training 15,000 state and local employees in the final two months of 2009 in how to respond to FOIA requests, “Public bodies are so afraid [that] they are not using common sense.” Many times, a phone call from her office resolves the dispute. However some, she said, are “manipulating the process.”

The learning curve also has been steep in the PAC office. “We had to start from scratch,” Smith said, not even having a clue about the workload. She and her employees had to start by trying to undo “overnight 25 years of doing nothing. That’s not going to happen.” They have to build a case law record of binding decisions that will be on the Illinois Attorney General’s website for public bodies and potential requesters to learn from.

She sees improvement. “We are getting better at our job,” she said. In addition, “public bodies are loosening up a little bit on how they are doing the job.”

By the way, the PAC hotline phone is on Smith’s desk. The number is 877-299-FOIA. The website is