Statistics, an old editor once said, can be squirrely things. His favorite example was this – if you have 10 women in a room and one woman is pregnant and the other nine are virgins, statistically, all 10 are 10 percent pregnant and 90 percent virgins. To this day, I think he had too much time on his hands.
Pregnancies aside, his point is well taken – with a little mathematical ingenuity, you can twist statistics any way you want.
If you take into consideration a recent report by the Daily Herald, many municipalities are being overrun with FOIA requests, some increasing by as much as 50 percent in the past two years. Villages are also noticing that with the increase in requests comes an increase in costs.
But why the increase? Is there a plethora of public watchdogs coming out of the woodwork to see how their village government works? Possibly. However, Herald reporter Melissa Silverberg noted in her report that many municipalities attribute the increase to the fact that information from police departments that used to be easily accessible now requires a FOIA request. The reality is that some departments do that in a way to curtail the number of requests by folks who just want to look at police reports.
Silverberg told me in an email that what prompted the story was a discussion of FOIA costs during a budget meeting in Arlington Heights. Silverberg cites only Assistant Village Attorney Robin Ward. The time spent responding to FOIA requests “…is significant,” Ward said. “There are weeks we spend 50 to 60 percent of our time on it; other times it could be 5 percent.” No costs for handling FOIA requests in Arlington Heights were cited.
For that matter, no municipality cited costs as a hardship. Silverberg cited only Hawthorn Woods, which reported that it cost $4,247.59 to handle 85 requests. Those costs, the report said, were for copying, staff time and legal costs.
Hawthorn Woods appears to be an anomaly. According to Megan Fulara, Deputy City Clerk in Highland Park, The city handled 789 FOIA requests in the past 12 months. She noted in an email that “The great majority of requests are responded to electronically; therefore no ‘cost’ is incurred. Unfortunately, we cannot quantify the labor of our staff in the research and response time for each of these requests so the actual material cost of responses (data CDs, postage, reproduction of documents) is negligible.”
Fulara noted that the numbers do not include transactions by the Highland Park Police Department, which in the past 12 months handled 186 transactions totaling $4,409 for copies of accident reports. The department charges $5 for each police report.
Rolling Meadows spends about 21 hours a week handling FOIA requests, but FOIA officer Ginny Cotugno says it’s hard to pinpoint the cost for processing FOIA requests because “This amount of time would vary greatly depending on the type of request and the research involved in some of these requests. It could go much higher and then could be a lot less.”
In nearby Buffalo Grove, the Herald reported that the village had 954 FOIA requests in 2013, up from 664 in 2009. Village Manager Dane Bragg says staff may spend 10 hours a week, but since they cross departmental lines, the cost depends on the level of staff handling the request.
But while much of the focus was on the impact FOIA requests had on municipal operations, it appears as though park districts and school districts have not seen the onslaught, nor expense, of processing FOIA requests.
Stevenson High School, for example, had only nine FOIA requests from June 2013 through May of this year, according Public Information Officer Jim Conrey.
The state’s largest high school district, Palatine-based School District 211, reported 62 requests in the past 12 months, which cost the district an estimated $20,000, notes Lauren Hummel, Chief Operating Officer-Elect.
Meanwhile, Arlington Heights-based Township High School District 214, the state’s second largest high school district, received 50 FOIA requests in the 12-month period between March 2013 and March 2014. District FOIA officer Venetia Miles said the paid $1,150.50 in attorney-related fees. This number does not include district staff time.
North Suburban District 225, which includes Glenbrook North and Glenbrook South high schools, said it received “14 total FOIA requests in the past 12 months,” Rosanne Williamson, Assistant Superintendent for Educational Services, noted in an email. Williamson added that “Some are very simple to respond to while others cause us to incur legal expenses in consulting with our attorney regarding redaction of information and/or interpretation of the rules governing FOIA. Some of the more onerous requests take staff time to prepare documents and gather e-mails in the context of the request.”
Even the Buffalo Grove Park District reported little FOIA activity, saying it received 11 FOIA requests from April 2013 through May 2014. Like other agencies, it does not have a cost associated with processing the requests.
So how big of an issue is it? In a letter submitted to the Daily Herald, Maryam Judar, executive director of the Citizens Advocacy Center, wrote that “Public bodies in Illinois should be ashamed of themselves when they complain about FOIA requests. These public bodies continually frame FOIA as a burden and refuse to recognize that complying with FOIA is a cost of doing public business. Public bodies that complain would do better to embrace public participation and be proactive to make records public as they are created; not just the easy routine records. If the proportion of public record requests made by individuals, as compared to commercial requests, has increased, it signals that people are aware of the important civic tool of FOIA and how to use it in becoming better-informed about government operations.”
Of course, a colleague of mine on the Chicago Headline Club Board of Directors had an easy solution. “I say put your PUBLIC documents online and you won’t have to spend time digging them up.”
Works for me.