Wednesday, May 20, 2009

FOIA proposals diluted in legislation

By Dana Heupel

Proposed legislation to revise the Illinois Freedom of Information Act is significantly watered down from recommendations to lawmakers by the Illinois Reform Commission, the state attorney general and others, according to the interim head of the Illinois Press Association.

“Only in Illinois would this be defined as reform or transparency,” Don Craven, the association’s interim executive director, said during a telephone news conference today. The association first learned of the changes about midnight Tuesday in a draft of the bill obtained from Illinois House leadership.

Craven, an attorney who has represented news organizations and others seeking public records for more than 25 years, said he and other press association staff will recommend that the organization’s directors oppose the legislation “if it moves forward in this fashion.” He said he favors the current Freedom of Information Act, which he still views as flawed, over the new proposal.

The proposed revisions will be Senate Bill 1265 but have not yet been officially filed in the General Assembly, Craven said. Among the recommendations that differ from those of the Reform Commission, the attorney general and media organizations are:

* Criminal penalties, which the organizations had proposed, are not in the new bill, although it does provide for civil penalties against government bodies. But that only means, Craven said, that “the taxpayers get to pay when a public official violates the law.”

* Language that would have imposed a waiver of most exemptions from the act if a government body refused to respond to a FOIA request in the allotted time period has been removed.

* Certain automatic privacy exemptions in current law were deleted from the groups’ proposal but have been reinstated in the legislation. Among those automatic exemptions, Craven said, are “personnel files, medical files and ‘similar files,' whatever a similar file might be.”

* Every FOIA request would have to go through a public agency’s FOIA officer, and the agency could demand the request in writing. Although the initial time frame for the agency to respond to the request has been shortened from seven to five working days, under the new legislation, the clock won’t start running until the request is in the FOIA officer’s hands. That means it could be delayed if, for instance, the FOIA officer is on vacation, Craven said.

* Current law specifies that information requested under the FOI law should be provided in the format in which it’s kept – if an agency keeps electronic files, for instance, the requested information should be supplied in electronic form. That would no longer be required under the proposed changes, according to Beth Bennett, the press association’s director of government relations.

Craven and Bennett said they weren’t entirely happy with the final recommendations the Reform Commission, the attorney general and others made to the General Assembly because they had been weakened during the process, but the organization still supported those proposed revisions. With the revelation of the new contents of the legislation, the support “went from lukewarm to just pathetic,” Craven said.

"The attorney general strongly opposes these changes and will continue to fight to restore the bill to the form that was agreed on by the Illinois Reform Commission and all of our allies," said Cara Smith, deputy chief of staff for Attorney General Lisa Madigan. "The agreed-upon language was the result of months and months of hard work, and we feel it would bring a tremendous level of transparency to Illinois."

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