FOIA 101

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FOIA Fest takes place virtually Feb. 24-26

By Deanna Trejo

Even though there is no magic formula for writing a successful FOIA request, there is an art to getting a “yes” instead of a “no.”

Four news pros from the Better Government Association delivered that message and much more Friday evening during the opening session of the Chicago Headline Club’s FOIAFest 2021, which this year has gone virtual, while expanding to three days of panel discussions led by journalists, attorneys and community groups. 

Part primer, part refresher course, the “FOIA 101” panel served up sound advice for first-time filers and seasoned public records maestros alike. Here are some highlights from the BGA team of Jared Rutecki, Sidnee King, Katie Drews and Alejandra Cancino (who served as moderator):

Knowing what documents you need and choosing your words carefully can pay off in many ways, said Rutecki, an investigative reporter and data coordinator who also offered a brief history of FOIA from a federal and state perspective.

Because the process can be big on payoffs but long on frustrations, he stressed the importance of knowing up front what kinds of documents to ask for in a FOIA request. 

And rather than be adversarial with agencies’ FOIA officers, Rutecki and his colleagues urged a more reasoned, personal approach to the relationship.

To avoid an unnecessary denial, Drews urged those filing requests to know what is exempt from disclosure, including internal personnel information. The investigative reporter also advised that requests be phrased “so that what you’re asking for [are] documents” rather than asking questions, because FOIA officers are not required to answer questions. 

King picked up from there with a discussion on what she called “the fun part: The waiting.” 

“If you don’t get a response, that is a denial,” the BGA equity reporter said, while also recommending keeping track of requests and following up with the FOIA officer. She mentioned that, although difficult, it is possible to have a request expedited “if the public has an immediate need for the information.”

King added that although “this can be a really frustrating process, (it’s) a game of being persistent and steadfast in seeking an answer about the records request.” 

King said there are three options when denied a FOIA request: accepting the denial, appealing for a review (a must) or filing a lawsuit. The second option is free but can be a drawn-out affair, she noted. “It can take months, or a year.”