CHICAGO — A report by the Better Government Association (BGA) reveals an overwhelming rate of failure among public agencies asked to produce public records.
The report, Curiosity Killed the Cat,” details the challenges an ordinary citizen faced, when asking for public records from 408 units of government in Illinois. BGA Fellow Daniel Lombard sent the requests to gauge the government’s compliance with FOIA for those other than news organizations or watchdogs like the BGA.
Among the study’s findings:
• Only thirty-eight percent of public bodies were fully or substantially compliant.
• Thirty-nine percent failed to respond at all, a violation of the Act.
• Of those audited, sixty-two percent failed to comply with FOIA.
“The results are appalling,” said Jay Stewart, Executive Director of the Better Government Association. “When the overwhelming majority does not comply with the law and produce records that are clearly available under FOIA, something is seriously wrong.”
“Public employees and officials have a duty to follow the law, just like everyone else,” Stewart said, “and the law says the public has a right to see how its business is conducted.”
Even more disturbing than the results alone was the level of resistance, obfuscation, and outright hostility that greeted the ordinary citizen asking to see public records.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, the intent of a citizen asking for is inconsequential and cannot determine whether or not the request is fulfilled. During the BGA’s study, however, numerous public officials demanded that Lombard provide his reasoning for seeking the records, with many refusing to produce the documents otherwise.
In one notable case, a public body reversed its decision to deny the request, after discovering Lombard’s affiliation with the BGA.
“This shows that ordinary taxpayers are too-often denied a right so clearly provided by the Freedom of Information Act,” Jay Stewart said.
“If public officials aren’t educated enough on the law, then we need to educate them. If they just don’t want to follow the law, then we should hold them accountable just like the rest of us would be.”
The BGA is recommending a series of amendments to the Illinois FOIA, including a requirement that public bodies report on its compliance with the law each year, risking the loss of state funds otherwise. The Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor should also have the authority to enforce the law and be given more power to help citizens in their requests.
“Transparency is crucial in running government without corruption and excessive waste,” added Stewart. “Results like these are unacceptable. The public deserves better.”