By Andrew Thomason Illinois Statehouse News
SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Legislature might make the state’s Freedom of Information Act less open.
A measure moving through the state Senate would restrict some records that are available to the public. The plan comes a little more than a year after sweeping changes in the law made it easier for the public to access public records through Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act.
“I think a lot of the changes that are being proposed right now are premature at best,” said Josh Sharp of the Illinois Press Association. “And a lot of them are just not at all in the public’s interest.”
Charging more to reproduce public records and expanding the definition of what is off limits are both included under Senate Bill 2203. But what especially concerns opponents of the measure is the creation of “vexatious” FOIA requests.
Simply put, the legislation would make it harder for people who are deemed annoying for the sake of being annoying, to get records.
“It’s like pornography; you recognize it when you see it, recognizing it as someone coming for no apparent purpose,” said State Sen. Pamela Althoff, a co-sponsor of the plan.
The legislation states that member of the public who makes more than 48 open records requests to a single public body during the course of a year are put on a list. Government bodies are given 21 days to reply to requests by people on that list.
The current law gives governments five days to respond to any requests.
“We don’t believe there are secrets in government, that is the intent, and nobody wants to peel that away. I think we just want to create a solid, reasonable, clear framework to work within for those units of government,” Althoff, R-Crystal Lake, said. "There are people that do, and everyone recognizes them, take advantage of any law, regardless of whether it’s the Freedom of Information Act or whatever.”
Sharp and others said putting any limit on the number of requests a person can file creates an environment that chokes government accountability.
Beyond the so-called "vexatious request" addition, the legislation also lets governments charge more to process lengthy requests or to retrieve documents from a third-party storage site. That's something that is unacceptable to Whitney Woodward of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
ICPR describes itself on its website as "a nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest group that conducts research, educates the public and advocates reforms to promote public participation to address the roll of money in politics and encourage integrity, accountability and transparency in government."
“Let’s remember that these are public documents that have already been created with taxpayer funds,” Woodford said. “I think it sends the wrong message if the government is basically nickel-and-diming individuals to access public documents.”
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office has generally advocated for easier access to records, and calls the changes a step backward for open government.
"Over the course of this (legislative) session, we have expressed serious concerns about any attempt to roll back provisions that were designed to strengthen the Freedom of Information (Act) to increase government transparency and accountability," said Natalie Bouer, a spokeswoman for the attorney general.
Althoff said she is planning a meeting with all people interested in FOIA and the implications of the proposed law to discuss possible changes. But, she said, major changes aren’t likely.
“There are still a few little items that we need to tweak, but I think pretty much we took what we thought were reasonable modifications to the original legislation and put them into one omnibus bill,” she said.