City loses FOIA case
The text messages council members write and receive during meetings are public documents.
Now that the city of Champaign has been ordered by a court to turn over disputed communications, it's our hope that compliance will be immediate.
But there's no guarantee of that because the city, like other public institutions (including the University of Illinois), has made noncompliance or reluctant compliance with the state's Freedom of Information Act almost unofficial policy. In other words, it resists what it knows are legitimate FOIA requests to make the process so slow and expensive that it will discourage future requests.
It's way past time for that foot-dragging policy to be abandoned.
The latest months-long dispute involves a request under the FOIA by The News-Gazette for copies of electronic messages sent by city council members during city council meetings.
Even after a public access counselor for the Illinois attorney general's office informed city officials the documents were public and should be released, the city rejected the request and forced the issue to the courts.
On Monday, Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt said the FOIA requires the city to comply.
Will it do so? City Attorney Fred Stavins was noncommittal.
He made his statement in spite of the fact that he acknowledged the city did not expect a favorable decision from Judge Schmidt.
"I don't think (his ruling) was unexpected," said Stavins.
In other words, Stavins, a veteran lawyer, acknowledged that he perceived the city's legal stance as a loser yet proceeded to take the issue to court. If he thought the case would be a loser at the circuit court level, is there any reason to think the city's case will be any stronger before the appellate court?
This case represents a perfect example of denials of FOIA requests that are not made in good faith. They are, in fact, made in bad faith for a variety of reasons.
City officials may hope that the release of relevant documents months after they are requested will diminish public interest in a news event. They may wish to make it so expensive to pursue in court that the individuals or entities seeking the information will be forced to abandon their efforts. They may simply hate the idea of letting the public in on the public's business.
Whatever the motives may be, it's an unacceptable abuse of the process.
The FOIA was passed to open up public institutions to scrutiny, no matter whether inquiries are submitted by the news media or from private individuals. The reasons for doing so are obvious — the taxpayers who fund government are entitled to know what they are paying for.
It's equally obvious that some public officials simply can't bring themselves to comply without being forced to do so by the courts. That's what happened here — and it's a shame.