The Illinois Senate today passed HB3796 that calls for changes in the state’s FOIA guidelines.
According to the Citizen Advocacy Center:
The bill adds provisions to the Freedom of Information Act to create a category of requests called “Voluminous Requests.” This is in addition to the other provisions in the FOIA that enable public bodies to negotiate FOIA requests, which are the recurrent requester provision and the unduly burdensome provision.
The voluminous request provisions:
May be utilized by the public body if more than 5 individual requests for more than 5 different categories of records, or a combination of requests asking for public records from 5 different categories in a 20-day period;
Extend the timeline by which the public body must correspond with the requester;
May result in the public body calling the (amended) voluminous request as “unduly burdensome”.
Contradict the FOIA provision that allows requesters to INSPECT original documents (an issue decided by an Illinois appellate court in DesPain vs. City of Collinsville), because the bill allows the public body to point to postings of records or information on its website as a sufficient response to the FOIA request–WITHOUT certifying that the online copy is a “true and accurate” copy of the original.
Requesters routinely ask for documents from more than 5 categories in monitoring government activity. For example, for a zoning hearing on a proposed permit, a requester might want documents from the:
- Zoning Commission
- Development, Planning & Zoning Committee
- Finance Department
- Economic Development Commission
- Public Affairs & Safety Committee
- Tax Increment Finance Joint Review Board
- Correspondence between elected officials and staff on the matter at hand and
- Minutes of regular board meetings (that, contrary to the law, may not be posted online).
It is important to note that the FOIA is “Intent-Neutral”–the reason that the requester wants public records is not a consideration that the public body should make in complying with the request. A document evidencing government business is presumed to be public– or it may through clear and convincing evidence be withheld through an exception, or an exemption outside the FOIA statute may exist. These are the only considerations that a public body may take in responding to a FOIA request.
It should be noted that the unduly burdensome provision is a workable provision–it requires the public body to ask the requester to narrow the request to manageable proportions.
This bill is partly in reaction to those FOIA requesters who avoided the label of “recurrent requester” by putting their FOIA requests in one letter or email to the public body–an unintended consequence of the recurrent requester provision. If you remember, a recurrent requester submits 7 FOIA requests in 7 days, 15 FOIA requests in 30 days, or 50 FOIA requests in 365 days. At the very least, the recurrent requester provision should be removed from the FOIA, if the voluminous request provisions pass and get signed into law.
While non-profits, scientific, or academic organizations, and the media are exempt from the voluminous request provisions, this bill severely curbs the ability of the public to monitor government activity.
Both the Citizen Advocacy Center and the Chicago Headline Club, the Chicago chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, are urging Gov,. Quinn to veto HB3796.