CHAMPAIGN – One-year-old revisions to the state's Freedom of Information Act have changed the way public documents are maintained both locally and across the state, officials say, and the state's top public access counselor says she hopes there are no changes in the law's second year.
Freedom of Information officers in Champaign and Urbana said the law, major changes to which took effect on Jan. 1, 2010, has them spending more time dealing with citizens' requests for documents, but the workload has yet to reach a breaking point.
"The city has always operated with the public has the right to know," said Champaign City Clerk Marilyn Banks. "To have what we have now has certainly put more workload on the staff to respond more."
Governments now have to spend more time logging requests, dealing with shorter deadlines for responses, completing annual training on how to apply the law and closely examining denials they issue. Public agencies also face repercussions if they do not comply with the law, an enforcement mechanism that did not exist before 2010.
In 2010, the city of Urbana processed more than 325 Freedom of Information requests, about a 60 percent increase over the 205 it received in 2009. In 2008, the city processed 181 requests, according to data obtained through a News-Gazette Freedom of Information request.
Champaign numbers are harder to track, Banks said, since the city created a central processing system only in 2010, a response to the FOIA revisions. City officials have processed thousands of requests during the past few years, the bulk of which include accident and offense reports from the police department.
A specific duty the city has spent more time on, Banks said, is redacting individuals' private information in public documents. The law's privacy exemption is more specific now, "whereas before, it wasn't as specific and you didn't have to look as closely. ... You had the option to just deny (the entire document) before," Banks said.
Robin Kaler, spokeswoman for the University of Illinois' Urbana campus, said the revisions have created a significantly larger workload for campus officials, especially with a new awareness among people who previously might not have known the law existed.
"Now that we're getting more from people who are first time filers, they might not understand completely how to word a request, and they may word it pretty broadly," Kaler said.
The FOIA revisions were enacted at the beginning of 2010 as the first major reform to the bill since its initial adoption in 1984 – in part, it was a reaction to dwindling confidence in Illinois government exacerbated by the demise of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The reform did not come without disapproval from government lobbyists.
But Don Craven, general counsel for the Illinois Press Association, said the complaints have proven to be without warrant. The changes have given more options to document seekers "who, before 2010, the only recourse was to either forget about getting the records or file a lawsuit."
"What needs to be changed most of all is the mindset among the keepers of records so that the default becomes that these are public records and they should be disclosed," Craven said.
One of the most successful aspects of the law, he said, was the creation of a public access counselor in the attorney general's office . The counselor acts as a filter for public agencies' shuttering of records and helps to create uniformity in applications of the law.
Cara Smith, the state's public access counselor, said the number of requests coming into her office are in bulk, but the staff is getting better.
"In the beginning, it was all new," Smith said. "So it took us a little longer to work through things because we were trying really, really hard to get it right with really no guidance."
Toward the end of last week, 5,112 cases had come into her office. Of those, 3,204 were "pre-authorization requests," or government agencies' requests to deny records, and 1,908 were requests for review, or citizens seeking a second opinion on a denial of records.
The office has issued opinions on about 82 percent of those matters, a rate Smith said will continue to improve as staff in her office see more and more similar matters to which they can offer uniform opinions.
The vast majority of those opinions are non-binding, though, and Smith said problems still arise with a minority of public agencies that chronically disregard her staff's advice. She specifically mentioned the University of Illinois as one of those agencies.
"It is very unfortunate that the U of I has chosen to disregard our legal advice," Smith said.
But UI spokesperson Tom Hardy said the university system replies to more than 500 requests per year and does a "commendable" job producing thousands of documents.
"We comply with the FOIA law both in the spirit and the letter of the law," Hardy said.
Kaler said Urbana campus officials would never disregard the public access counselor's opinion, but they may disagree with it. Sometimes they seek the advice of their own attorneys, who "might say that this information really is private."
"Our balance always is the public's right to know versus an individual person's right to privacy, and that's a really delicate balance to maintain," Kaler said.
But the public access counselor does have a tool available for those situations: Smith can issue a binding opinion, which compels an agency to comply.
The office has issued four of those binding opinions this year, she said, but none directed at the UI. It is a tool she said she plans to use more often in 2011.
The revisions have not come without legislation to scale back the changes. Only about two weeks after the changes had gone into effect in 2010, the Illinois state legislators voted to exempt the performance evaluations of teachers and school administrators.
Later that year, a bill was introduced to exempt the performance evaluations of all public employees. That passed both houses before Gov. Pat Quinn issued an amendatory veto to exempt only the evaluations of law enforcement officers. Legislators overrode his veto toward the end of the year.
Smith said she hopes 2011 does not bring any more changes.
"If we (the Attorney General's office) don't see the need for a change, I would hope everyone else would respect that," she said.