From State Senator Pam Althoff:
In response to recent e-mails and phone calls I have received regarding my yes vote on House Bill 3796, I would like to explain why this legislation, will in fact, increase access to public records and improve the way “voluminous” or large Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests are processed.
House Bill 3796 was vetoed by the Governor but overridden by both the Senate (39-13-0) and House of Representatives (77-36-0) this fall. This legislation will increase government transparency by allowing public bodies to more efficiently respond to FOIA requests for information that is available on the internet while giving public bodies more time and flexibility to deal with voluminous FOIA requests.
By allowing public bodies to refer FOIA requesters to public websites for valuable government information, it will save time and money for both requesters and public bodies.
It is anticipated that many public bodies will choose to make public records available online rather than expend valuable and scarce resources to deal with routine FOIA requests, this will increase transparency and availability of public records.
By allowing more time and flexibility to deal with “voluminous” requests, public bodies will remain responsible for making public records accessible but will be able to manage large FOIA requests in a way that effectively uses the resources of the public body.
The debate surrounding this legislation stemmed primarily from confusion over the intent of House Bill 3796 and its relationship to a vastly different piece of legislation, Senate Bill 2799, which died in the House this fall.
These two measures were often used interchangeably by opposition groups to argue that lawmakers are trying to restrict public access to government documents. However, these two pieces of legislation are substantially different.
The true intent of House Bill 3796 was to help improve efficiency in the processing of large FOIA requests for both the requester and the unit of government. This will help reduce personnel costs incurred by public bodies in processing large requests, which involve intensive efforts to copy, review, and properly redact requested information.
While many believe it easy and cheap for public bodies to respond to FOIA requests, because many of the documents are maintained electronically, that is really not an accurate assessment.
FOIA requests require a search for records, a review of those records to determine if any exemptions apply or if any redactions are warranted, and the time-consuming task of redacting any documents that are subject to disclosure but contain exempt information (such as social security numbers and other personal information). It should also be noted that the “voluminous request” provisions do not apply to the press so FOIA requests from the press will continued to be handled in the normal timeframes.
Senate Bill 2799 contained provisions that were viewed as expanding the ability of public bodies to usethe “preliminary drafts” exemption to FOIA and to limit the ability of a requester to obtain attorney’s fees in a lawsuit seeking disclosure of public records.
As my voting record reflects, I have long advocated for increasing government transparency and efficiency. I supported House Bill 3796 because I believe it will improve the timeliness of FOIA requests, provide flexibility, reduce costs and increase access to public records that will now be accessible online.
If you have any further questions on this issue, please contact my district office at (815) 455-6330 or e-mail me at [email protected]
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The Citizen Advocacy Center pointed to the following shortcomings of the bill:
specific points that you can make when you call:
- This bill for “voluminous requests” is confusing and creates more problems than solutions.
- Mechanisms currently exist in the FOIA to protect public bodies from “unduly burdensome” requests and “recurrent requesters.”
- This bill will snare regular FOIA users who ask for routine documents and cause a delay of over a month to receive documents.
- There are 7000+ public bodies in Illinois, and not nearly enough media outlets to hold them all accountable. We rely on Illinois residents to monitor local government to keep it in check.
- This bill creates the “haves” and a “haves-not” in Illinois with respect to the right to public records because of the fees up to $100, which can be incurred for asking for routine electronic documents that can easily be attached to an email to send to the requester.
- There is no empirical evidence that the public bodies’ complaints of “abusive” or “harassing” requesters, and for the anecdotal cases where these requesters exist, the unduly burdensome and recurrent requester provisions in FOIA should suffice and public bodies should avail themselves of those remedies.