Being an engaged citizen can be as simple as knowing who your elected officials are and how to contact them when important issues arise, like debates on school funding, cuts to social services or proposed tax increases. Getting and staying involved and on top of important state issues is a lot easier these days with the internet and professional, mainstream media news sites. One of the best ways we at the Better Government Association stay informed and engaged is by using the Freedom of Information Act.
The Freedom of Information Act, often referred to as FOIA, is an open records law that requires public business be open and accessible to the people. The information governments keep can range from minutes from a meeting to information that might not always be publicized, like what grants were awarded by a government agency to whom and for how much. Access to that information is important and necessary because it allows people and organizations to ensure government is working in the public interest.
The FOIA law states: “All records in the custody or possession of a public body are presumed to be open to inspection or copying.” What qualifies as a public body? The law spells it out. It includes all forms of government, from cities to commissions. Your county’s board, the Illinois Arts Council or the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs all are public bodies.
Public records, like public bodies, cover a wide range: reports, forms, spreadsheets and even microfilms. If materials related to public business are prepared, used, received or in the possession or control of any public body, then they are public records you, as a citizen, have a right to access.
In order to facilitate FOIA requests, every public body must appoint at least one FOIA officer who is responsible for receiving and responding to FOIA requests. All public bodies are required to have information on how to contact the FOIA officer in their offices and on their websites.
Use of FOIA by citizens and organizations has been crucial in uncovering significant information. The release of the video showing Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer happened because of a FOIA request. Many citizens use FOIA to see what local governments spend on outside consulting or on government employee salaries.
For these reasons, the BGA is proud to work to protect FOIA. We do it through our Policy and Civic Engagement team by stopping legislation that would weaken FOIA and supporting legislation that strengthens it. We often work with lawmakers to adjust wording they initially might not realize could weaken FOIA or the Open Meetings laws. When necessary, we have also gone to court to defend FOIA.
Filing a FOIA request isn’t difficult; its simply has to be in writing. We recommend submitting a request through email or fax so you can prove it was received. A public body must comply with or deny the request within five business days of it being received. The public body can extend the deadline for another five business days. If you don’t get a response within that time frame, the law treats it as a denial of the request.
Being denied, though, doesn’t mean you should stop pursuing your request. Some people, including some at the BGA, think this is where the fun begins. We recommend you look at the FOIA statute and compare it to the language of the exemption being claimed if your request for information is denied. If the reason for denial doesn’t make sense to you, contact the FOIA officer and ask for clarification or push back if they’re wrong. If that appeal goes nowhere, you can submit a request for review with the Public Access Counselor. The PAC is a team of attorneys in the Illinois Attorney General’s office whose responsibility is to ensure and encourage compliance with FOIA. You also can contact us with questions related to FOIA, or visit www.bettergov.org for templates that can help you get started writing a FOIA request.
In its 2009 Federal FOIA guidelines, the U.S. Department of Justice wrote: “The three principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration form the cornerstone of an open government.” With information obtained through FOIA, people are better prepared to be engaged and to more fully participate in and collaborate with their governments. Read reliable government news, stay informed, submit FOIAs and you’ll be ready to demand the better government we deserve.