BGA policy and government affairs coordinator, Emily Miller, has been monitoring developments on the most pressing state issues, and advocating for open, accountable and efficient government during the legislative session that recently concluded in Springfield.

Miller evaluates where one of the BGA’ s top legislative priorities—protecting the Freedom of Information Act—now stands.

>Protecting the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the law that gives citizens the ability to access information about their government, is a top BGA priority.

This year, the BGA worked to prevent a sweeping rollback of a new and improved FOIA law that went into effect last year from passing in the Illinois General Assembly.

The good news is that, by being involved in negotiations with key lawmakers and staffers, the BGA stopped some of the most absurd FOIA backsliding, including allowing public school districts to wait all summer until students returned in the fall before responding to a citizen’s FOIA request.

The bad news is that, despite the efforts of the BGA and other good-government groups, FOIA still suffered a blow when Senate President John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael J. Madigan teamed up in the final hours of the legislative session to pass a measure that, in the BGA’s view, weakens the FOIA law.

>> Call 312-814-2121 to tell Gov. Quinn to veto HB1716, the FOIA rollback bill.

Backers of the bill argue they are merely tweaking current FOIA law to improve its implementation.

Nevertheless, the impetus for the additional bill were claims from local units of government that, since the new FOIA law took effect in 2010, FOIA requests are becoming overly burdensome. Leaders of local municipalities and government agencies complained to state lawmakers about the high costs and increased employee hours and workload required to fulfill a growing number of FOIA requests.

However, none of those groups presented compelling hard data or statistical analysis to back their claims and instead won over lawmakers mostly with anecdotes and stories of mounting FOIA-related bills and managerial hardship.

What does the new bill do if signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn?

Going forward, FOIA would be changed to create a new category of FOIA requesters called “recurrent requesters.” A citizen is a “recurrent requester” if they request more than 50 FOIAs in one year, 15 in thirty days, or 7 in seven days.

Once someone is labeled a “recurrent requester”, he or she remains tagged as such for a year.

Moreover, the government is allowed to treat his or her FOIA request differently from other constituencies, including non-profits and the press.

Public bodies have no set time line in which they must comply with recurrent requesters FOIA requests. While they must let the “recurrent requestor” know within 21 days the estimated time a document search will take, they can take what is defined only as a “reasonable” amount of time to produce the document—a time frame that can be disputed only after the fact by filing a complaint with the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

The lack of a set time frame for reply can leave citizen watchdogs without access to time-sensitive information that’s needed to keep a close watch on what’s behind fast-changing or shifting government decisions or plans.

The proposed law will also give the Attorney General’s office the ability to issue binding opinions when public bodies wrongfully deny FOIA requests by reducing the time they have to spend responding to “pre-authorization requests”—the requests public bodies currently have to send to the AG’s office for permission to redact pieces of information when they respond to FOIA requests.

It’s this one positive aspect of the bill that compelled the Attorney General, after months of working with the BGA and other advocacy groups to oppose the FOIA changes, to support the bill in the final days of session.

The measure will, no doubt, give the AG more time to issue binding opinions.

But the rest of the bill is still bad public policy.

Limiting taxpayers’ access to information about their government, and deciding that some are more worthy than others to receive that information, is a bad move.

The BGA will be pushing for Gov. Quinn to veto this measure, and will keep working hard to demand our leaders take our right to access our government seriously.

>> Call 312-814-2121 to tell Gov. Quinn to veto HB1716, the FOIA rollback bill.

>> See how your Representatives and Senators voted, here:

Senate HB1716 FOIA Roll Back Roll Call, 5/30/2011

FOIA House Roll Call HB1716, 5/31/2011