CHAMPAIGN — City Attorney Fred Stavins said on Tuesday night that the city does not plan to appeal an appellate court's decision that it must turn over text messages to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request The News-Gazette filed in 2011.
Stavins said there are "very few documents" to produce, but the city will comply with a ruling that text messages sent and received on a council member's private device during a city council meeting are public records.
Stavins added, however, that he believes there are important legal issues left unresolved by the appellate court decision and problems with the Freedom of Information Act that the state's General Assembly must address.
"These are important legal issues," Stavins said. "They're important issues of privacy. They're important issues of open and transparent government, too."
The issue started in July 2011 when a News-Gazette reporter filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the city, asking for all "electronic communications, including cellphone text messages, sent and received by members of the city council and the mayor" during meetings since May 3, 2011. A week later the city rejected the newspaper's request, contending that the communications between council members on privately owned equipment were not public records.
The Illinois attorney general's office later ruled, however, that texts and emails sent during public meetings are public records and subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The city appealed that ruling to the circuit court, but a judge upheld it in June 2012. Later that summer the city asked the appellate court to review the case.
Attorneys for the city argued that the communications conducted on privately owned devices are not subject to the FOIA because individual council members are not themselves a "public body."
But the appellate court disagreed, ruling on July 17 that "once the individual city council members have convened a city council meeting (or 'study session'), it can reasonably be said they are acting in their collective capacity as the 'public body' during the time the meeting is in session. Indeed, the city council cannot act unless it acts through its individual members during a meeting. As a result, it is not unreasonable to conclude the communications 'pertaining to the transaction of public business,' which are sent to and received by city council members' personal electronic devices during a meeting are in the possession of the public body."