Illinois Governor Pat Quinn recently signed into law HB1716. which allows public agencies to charge people for the cost of record retrieval if the records are stored off site, and allows time delays in responding to “frequent requesters” of records using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A “frequent requester” is defined in the bill as anyone who has requested more than 50 documents in a year, or 15 in a 30-day period. The bill does mention exemptions for members of “the new media” and traditional media. The bill was justified as a cost saving measure that would also allow the general public to have easier access to records, since those “frequent requesters” will be less likely to tie up resources with the passage of this bill.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan initially opposed the bill, but has changed her stance and now supports it. The bill came about after a former police chief of Alsip, IL made 90 record requests in a single day. This was described as harassment, using the FOIA law as a tool to do damage rather than its original purpose of shining light on those in power.
Madigan described the former process of agencies contacting her office for permission to delay FOIA requests as problematic. Some agencies are alleged to have used the procedure as a method of “stopping the clock” on FOIA requests that they simply did not want to deliver on. An additional problem the AG’s office expects this bill to solve is the large backlog of requests caused by so many agencies requesting delays in fulfilling FOIA requests.
Watchdog groups such as the Sunlight Foundation have been highly critical of the bill. Sunlight Foundation says audits have shown that 62% of Illinois government has substantially failed to respond to FOIA requests. On top of current non-compliance, giving public agencies a legitimate avenue to further delay on requests does not look good.
Past abuses of FOIA requests include a prominent lawsuit involving a citizen who wanted to know how much the local school superintendent was being paid. The District fought the request on the grounds that this was personal information, only after several years delay did the courts decide the request had to be honored. If the requester had been interested in finding out what all the public employees were paid, he could have been delayed from finding out practically indefinitely.
Under HB 1716 as written, a citizen who is unfamiliar with the process who makes seven FOIA requests can be labeled a “frequent requester” when seven forms are filled out in a single day. A savvier operator will combine requests onto a single form and accomplish the same thing without being labeled.
The idea behind freedom of information is to make available as much information on what those in power are doing as the public is interested in. Limiting that ability serves only those in power.