Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor (PAC) is an administrative agency that processes Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Open Meetings Act (OMA) complaints filed by members of the public and the press. The agency was given binding enforcement powers effective in 2010 and has received copious requests for assistance in its position as ombudsman to resolve open government issues without citizens needing to seek relief in court.
In reviewing complaints filed by the public and the press, the PAC issues either a determination letter that is non-binding or a binding opinion. Determination letters are substantively identical to binding opinions but the binding opinions are reviewable by a circuit court. Due to the limited resources of the Attorney General’s office, only binding opinions are available on the government website, which total fewer than fifty. Conversely, there are hundreds if not thousands of determination letters that have been issues and are unavailable to view online.
Determination letters are of tremendous value to citizens, journalists, policymakers and public bodies because they reveal how the Attorney General’s office interprets open government statutes. Currently, an individual must know what he or she is looking for and submit a FOIA request to obtain a determination letter relative to a specific issue.
The PAC’s office is collaborating with the Chicago Headline Club (CHC) and the Citizen Advocacy Center (CAC) by releasing determination letters that have substantive value in interpreting the laws. Our collaboration will yield a searchable database that captures the many parameters of a particular determination letter. For FOIA complaints, this includes the type of records implicated, the public body from which the records were requested, the FOIA provision at issue, the legal rationale applied, and the outcome, to name a few.
The preliminary findings, presented at the Chicago Headline Club’s FOIAFest, held March 14 are at: Preliminary Results
The Chicago Headline Club, the Chicago chapter of the Society of Professional Journalistrs (headlineclub.org) is the Chicago areas’ most important organization for journalists, providing ethics advice, scholarships and grants, and funding for new investigative projects. Our members are from all levels and walks of the profession, from top editors to newbies, from print to broadcast to online. Our 400-some members belong to the local chapter of the 9,000 member Society of Professional Journalists, founded in 1909 and the nation’s oldest journalism group. The Chicago Headline Club, the largest local SPJ chapter, turned 90 years old in 2013.
The Citizen Advocacy Center is a non-profit, non-partisan, community-based, legal organization dedicated to building democracy for the 21st century. For 20 years, CAC has focused on strengthening the citizenry’s capacities, knowledge, and institutions for self-governance. For more information about CAC programs and resources call 630-833-4080, visit www.citizenadvocacycenter.org or follow up on Facebook.