Many public bodies fail to follow freedom of information act
“I guess we flunked,” Monica Camper, deputy village clerk for Metamora, said.
Camper had just been asked for copies of the materials required to be available in plain sight under the State of Illinois’ new Freedom of Information Act.
Camper could not produce the required material.
But, she was not alone.
In an audit of nine municipal offices and three county courthouses compliance with this particular state law by those who pass local laws was not widespread.
Only four public bodies out of the 11 surveyed were found to be in compliance with the law. In our survey of four public bodies in Woodford County only the city of Eureka and the Village of Germantown Hills were in total compliance. Woodford County failed to pass the test.
Our investigation also delved into parts of Peoria and Tazewell counties.
The Peoria County Courthouse was in compliance both at their offices and on their website. Washington was in compliance.
Not in compliance was Chillicothe, Dunlap, Tazewell County, East Peoria and Morton.
Dennis DeRossett, executive director of the Illinois Press Association, said he both was and was not surprised at the results of this audit.
“It’s a training and awareness issue. Your findings show a need to educate by the attorney general’s office, the Illinois Municipal League and our organization,” DeRossett said.
“We probably all need to work to make (public bodies) more aware of it. These people have just fallen through the cracks.”
DeRossett said he was not aware of any penalty public bodies would face for failing to comply with the law.
But, he added, penalties are not what he was interested about in this situation.
“The best thing is awareness,” DeRossett said.
“All of these records and the work done by these government officials is to be open. It’s a simple issue of transparency. The public simply has the right to know how government works and how their tax dollars are being spent. The Freedom of Information Act is the vehicle that makes that happen.”
Michael L. Thurwanger, director of the Reagan Leadership Program at Eureka College was not surprised by what was found, especially at this stage in the process.
“Often laws like this are passed with little consideration of the impact on agencies responsible for implementation. For smaller offices that are short-staffed, this is even more of a problem,” he said.
“Based on my own experience at the federal level in bringing various divisions into compliance, the process takes time and resources that are seldom provided or even considered by the legislature when they impose the requirements and establish deadlines.”
Thurwanger said the law has not had the desired effect.
“From my own professional experience, I doubt that the agencies are intentionally resisting compliance but the law apparently didn’t provide the necessary resources, assign responsibilities and provide for enforcement to get the job done,” he said.
He added the new Freedom of Information Act is important to the public.
“Democracies require active participation by an informed citizenry, so transparency and access to information are critical,” he said.
“The lack of information and training you’ve found point up a weakness in terms of that access and that should be a concern for all of us. Any law that is not followed or enforced or well-written is of questionable benefit. These revisions are likely to have long-term benefit even if local agencies are not yet in compliance as members of the public can now use this as additional leverage to obtain access to information and eventually enforcement penalties will move agencies to take required actions. But all of us should also be aware that a dedicated effort to train, gather information and develop mechanisms to release information requires time and resources as well.”
What the law says
As of January 1, 2010, the Freedom of Information Act required all public bodies designate one or more officials or employees to act as a Freedom of Information Act officer.
These officers are to receive requests for records, ensure that the public body responds to the requests in a timely fashion and issue responses.
The FOIA officer is designated to develop a list of documents or categories of records that the public body shall immediately disclose upon request as shown in the tan box to the right.
All FOIA officers were required to complete online FOIA training at the Illinois Attorney General’s website by June 30.
What we found
On July 6 a Woodford Times reporter conducted an audit in Woodford County at the Woodford County Courthouse, Eureka City Hall, Germantown Hills Village Hall and Metamora Village Hall.
Germantown Hills Village Clerk Ann Sasso had the required information posted in her office and on the village’s website.
“We wanted to be sure to be in compliance,” Sasso said. “It wasn’t that difficult to comply. It’s something you just have to do. We already had the information.”
It was a similar story in the City of Eureka. Administrator Ann Sandbik said she had received a visit from the state checking on compliance.
“They were amazed. We had everything in place,” she said.
Across the street at the Woodford County Courthouse it was a very different story.
Debbie Ulrich, FOIA officer for Woodford County, did not have the required information posted either at the courthouse or on the county’s website.
“I have taken the training,” Ulrich said.
She was aware the information must be posted, but she had not gotten to it, she said.
“We do plan on having it posted. I hope within a month to get all that out,” Ulrich said.
“I am waiting on the needed information from other departments. It has been slow coming in.”
However, a check of the Woodford County website on Aug. 17 found that the required information was still not posted. Ulrich, when contacted that morning, said the required information had been posted in the eLibrary section of the website at www. woodford-county.org.
But, when Ulrich went to locate the information she could not find it either.
“We’ve had some glitches. Maybe it got taken off. I’ll get it back up there,” she said.
At 8:20 a.m. Aug. 20 the information was still not posted on the website.
Metamora, deputy clerk Monica Camper was totally surprised by questions posed to her.
“I just didn’t know we had to do all of this,” she said.
Camper could not produce any of the information required to be posted. Camper said she had not taken the required training. Camper added she did not think anyone in village government had.
“It doesn’t look too hard to comply with,” Camper said. “I’m surprised our attorney didn’t know about this.”
Joe Nohl, FOIA officer for the Village of Morton said he took the electronic training, but was unaware of the need to post the required information.
Nohl said he would get the information posted as soon as possible.
The Tazewell County Courthouse failed to comply with the law.
In the Tazewell County Recorder of Deeds office Robert Lutz fills the role of Freedom of Information Act officer, and his office was not in compliance.
“I remember seeing something in an e-mail about training but I haven’t done it,” Lutz said.
In the Department of Assessments and Board of Review FOIA officer Gary Twist said he had not completed the training and had no information posted for the public.
He also had no information available to give to the public if anyone requested it. He did not have an answer as to why his department is not in compliance.
“Obviously we will do whatever is necessary according to the law,” Twist said.
In the Department of Zoning and Community Development FOIA officer Melissa Kreiter said she had taken the training but had nothing displayed. Kreiter did have a packet of information ready to give to people with almost all the information, but was missing the number of full time and part time employees and identification of the Zoning Board of Appeals members.
Tazewell County administrator David Jones said while all the required information is not posted department by department it is a click away on the website. However, that still means the county is not in compliance.
Jones said having the total operating budget for each department is challenging because the county does not always fund an entire department in one budget. It can be two budgets or part of different budgets.
“Have we sat down and put down all that information on paper? I’m not going to mislead you; we haven’t done that,” Jones said.
“It’s just not how we budget. It’s not something we’ve been required to do previously. It’s additional work for the county to do that. Certainly we would be available to work with anyone who had questions. We don’t have a placard in each office that shows all that information, but we could refer them to the appropriate document or sit down and have a conversation.”
Jones said representatives of the Illinois Attorney General’s office came to the county several months ago.
“Myself, some board members along with department heads and staff members took the training. It was attended by 30-40 people,” Jones said.
“We have taken steps to upgrade our website partially because of need and desire to do that; citizens want more transparency. We’ve also done things in response to FOIA. We’ve been trying to put more stuff on the website to be more customer friendly. The next step in the process is working toward having a link on every department web page where citizens can submit requests directly to the FOIA officer.”
Jones said it is a work in progress.
“We’ve made a lot of progress but there’s still progress to be made. Our goal is to centralize the FOIA requests for all of the departments under the authority of the board and have one central FOIA officer.”
He said the county’s human resources director will eventually be the central FOIA officer.
“The county has been well-advised by our legal council in regard to FOIA. The primary FOIA officer would be a centralized point of contact for all departments under the authority of the board and then we will have secondary officers who have taken the training to assist in that process,” Jones said.
“We’re not going to hire a person and that’s all they do. It will be people accepting additional responsibilities because of the law. What we’ve always tried to do is if people want information and its public record, we just give it to them. This law means we have to formalize the process.”
Washington City Hall was in compliance.
East Peoria City Administrator Tom Brimberry said they will get the information posted as soon as possible.
“We were unaware of this,” he said.