5 reasons FOIA bill would crush government watchdogs in corrupt Illinois

Brian Costin

Open government and government transparency expert

Brian Costin
November 28, 2014

5 reasons FOIA bill would crush government watchdogs in corrupt Illinois

HB 3796 would hamstring watchdogs in a state riddled with corruption. Lawmakers should let Quinn’s veto stand.

Illinoisans have by far the lowest level of trust in state government in the nation. One of the key reasons for this is Illinois’ high level of government corruption. The Land of Lincoln is ranked as the third-most corrupt state in the nation.

One of the most important citizen-watchdog tools in the fight against corruption is the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, which gives normal people access to public information on how their government operates. By researching government activities, citizens can expose wrongdoing, deter government corruption and help ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent appropriately.

So why are some Illinois lawmakers trying to make it harder and more expensive for citizens to fight public corruption?

House Bill 3796 would create a new “voluminous request” category within the Freedom of Information Act and impose new rules that would delay the transmittal of public information and impose new costs on some FOIA requestors.

HB 3796 was originally passed by both the Illinois House and Senate, but was vetoed by Gov. Pat Quinn on June 27. The Illinois House has voted to override Quinn’s veto, and an override vote in the Illinois Senate is the only thing standing in the way of this bill passing into law.

Here are five reasons Illinois state senators should vote no on overriding Quinn’s veto:

1. HB 3796 is a “watchdog tax” and would increase the cost of FOIA requests by up to 10,000 percent

The financial implications of the bill would be a real burden for most citizen requesters. If the electronic record requested is in PDF format, a $100 charge would be levied if the file is larger than 160 megabytes. If it isn’t in PDF format, requesters could be charged up to $100 for more than four megabytes of data.

Currently, for electronic requests, public bodies are only allowed to charge the cost of the recording medium to transmit the data, which is usually $1 or less. The proposed charge of up to $100 represents a potential 10,000 percent increase in the cost of a citizen making a simple FOIA request.

For context, four megabytes of data can be less than a single digital photo or a few seconds of video.

2. HB 3796 doesn’t account for technological advances

The bill is stuck in the 1900s with its dependence on pages as the relevant measure of volume. The vast majority of records are now in an electronic format, so physical volume is not a meaningful limitation or burden anymore. Local governments can attach a single-page document to an email as easily as a 1,000-page document.

Big data has already arrived in the public sphere. As long as the government is managing its electronic records efficiently, responding to FOIA requests should be physically and logically easier than ever. If public offices don’t or can’t keep up with the volume of electronic records they create, that is a management problem, not a burdensome FOIA problem.

It makes far more sense to write laws that require governments to disclose existing documents and databases to the public in a proactive manner. HB 3796 moves Illinois in the wrong direction.

3. HB 3796 discriminates against people who live in urban areas

HB 3796 places a disproportionate burden on people living in large cities like Chicago, Rockford or Naperville; and large counties like Cook, DuPage or Lake.

Public bodies in these places are large and, as such, are more likely to have “voluminous” records. Larger public bodies should expect to get proportionately larger requests, but HB 3796 makes no accommodation for FOIA requestors of large public bodies.

There is no reason that large government bodies should escape public scrutiny because of their size. The fact that no accommodation is made for FOIA requestors in large communities shows HB 3796 is a poorly conceived bill. Large government bodies are often the places where the most corruption happens and transparency is most needed.

4. HB 3796 vilifies watchdogs for making “voluminous” requests

HB 3796 has an incredibly narrow definition of what constitutes a voluminous requestor:

“(h) ‘Voluminous request’ means a request that: (i) includes more than 5 individual requests for more than 5 different categories of records or a combination of individual requests that total request for more than 5 different categories of records in a period of 20 business days; or (ii) requires the compilation of more than 500 letter or legal-sized pages of public records unless a single requested record exceeds 500 pages.”

Labeling someone a “voluminous” requester, taking away their rights to access public information in a timely manner, and charging them more in fees is demeaning and wrong. We shouldn’t discourage the work of volunteer citizen watchdogs.

A “voluminous” request can turn up evidence of corruption or illegal activity. A “voluminous” request could catch the next Rita Crundwell. And often, big-data analysis through a “voluminous” request is the only way to identify patterns of waste or corruption.

5. Transparency delayed is transparency denied 

This bill extends the time for a government agency to respond to a FOIA request by as many as 10 additional business days. Added to the 10 days local governments already have to respond to a request means responding to a “voluminous” FOIA request could take up to a calendar month.

If a vote on an issue takes place less than a month after a public notice is issued, this bill closes an opportunity for the public to inform themselves by gathering additional information. It also prevents citizens from giving fully informed feedback to legislators prior to a vote. If citizens happen to need a “voluminous” amount of information and can’t get it before the vote because of this law, state government will have successfully watered down the purpose of public notice.

It is perfectly appropriate to employ sizeable FOIA requests to provide data for serious public issues. Citizens deserve the opportunity to be informed about government activities, especially in advance of public votes.


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