The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request is a useful and critical tool available to anyone who wishes to know how their federal, state and municipal governments operate.
In a sense, the FOIA serves as an individual check and balance that taxpayers can utilize on governmental actions and information. FOIA requests make government more accountable and transparent to the people they serve.
Key terms to know in relation to the FOIA and its process include:
- Public Bodies—Under Illinois law, public bodies are defined as:
- All legislative, executive, administrative or advisory bodies of the State
- State universities and colleges
- Counties, townships, cities, villages, incorporated towns, school districts and all other municipal corporations, boards, bureaus, committees or commissions of this State
- Any subsidiary bodies of any of the foregoing, including but not limited to, committees and subcommittees thereof and a School Finance Authority created under Article 1E of the School Code.
- Public Records—For the purposes of the FOIA, public records are defined as any of the following as it relates to conducting public business:
- All records
- Electronic data processing records
- Electronic communications
- Recorded information
- All other documentary materials
- FOIA Officer—A person appointed by the respective public body, serving as the liaison between the public body and the individual submitting the FOIA request. The FOIA officer is responsible for receiving and responding to requests in compliance with state law. Every public body by law is required to designate an FOIA officer; failure to do so is illegal.
- Public Access Counselor—An attorney in the Attorney General’s Office whose responsibility is to ensure compliance with the FOIA. This person has the authority to review requests for documents under the FOIA and determine whether those documents should have been produced under the FOIA. As part of this public access work, the attorney general, through the public access counselor, has subpoena power, may issue advisory opinions to guide public bodies, may issue binding opinions in FOIA disputes and may sue to enforce binding opinions.
The FOIA process
To submit an FOIA request, an individual can email or mail the FOIA officer of a public body and ask for any public record within a specified time period.
The FOIA officer has 5 business days to decide whether he or she can comply with the request, must ask for an additional 5-day extension or will deny the request. The 5-day countdown begins the day after the public body receives the FOIA request.
An extension for an additional 5 business days is allowed for the following reasons:
- The information requested is stored at a different location.
- The collection contains a substantial number of documents.
- The request requires an extensive search.
- The records have not been located and additional time is needed.
- The records need to be reviewed by staff to determine whether they are exempt from the FOIA.
A request may be denied under certain circumstances for being unduly burdensome. A request can be determined “unduly burdensome” if the information being sought cannot be narrowed enough so that the burden on the public body to produce the information outweighs the public interest. Also, the request may be denied if the requested information falls into any of these categories that are exempt by law:
- Private information.
- Personal information.
- Law enforcement records.
- Information that, if disclosed, might endanger anyone’s life or physical safety.
- Preliminary drafts or notes.
- Business trade secrets or commercial or financial information that is proprietary, privileged or confidential, and disclosure would cause a competitive harm to the person or business.
- Proposals and bids for any contract until a final decision is made.
If an individual believes his or her FOIA request was denied or not handled in compliance with the law, he or she can ask for a review from the public access counselor. The public access counselor will conduct a review and decide on the merits of the request. Contact information for Illinois’ public access counselor can be found here: foia.ilattorneygeneral.net.
A list of Chicago’s FOIA officers is available at: cityofchicago.org/city/en/narr/foia/foia_contacts.html
A list of Illinois’ FOIA officers is available at: www2.illinois.gov/Pages/FOIA-Contacts.aspx
Learning about how government is operating is a critical step to ensuring that it is operating honestly and efficiently. Utilizing the FOIA is one of the easiest and most important options for taxpayers to stay informed and ensure government accountability.