FOIA reforms good for public

Staff Writer
Woodford Times

Government at its best serves the interests of the citizenry.

At its worst it serves the interests of politicians and special interests.

That is when government transparency is most needed, and least likely to be found.

One need only mention a few names — Nixon, Ryan, Balgojevich and Burris — to make that point.

That is exactly why it is such good news to see the Illinois General Assembly passed a rewrite of the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

A vote in the senate passed 58-1. A vote in the house passed 116-0. The bill now awaits the signature of Gov. Pat Quinn.

This effort has been at the forefront of lobbying efforts by Illinois newspapers and the Illinois Press Association.

But, this benefits the public the most.

Transparency in government is in the interest of every citizen. 

Freedom of Information Act requests from citizens are common in Peoria. District 150, the Peoria Park District and the City of Peoria routinely field Freedom of Information Act requests from citizens with an interest in a particular action or issue.

In Peoria, these bodies do a pretty good job of responding to both citizen and press requests for information. But, that is always a situation a moment away from changing. 

A stronger law just helps assure they will remain vigilant in that effort. 

It is a potent tool at the fingertips of any citizen.

The new legislation:

• establishes a presumption of transparency. Creates a presumption that all records are public and confirms if a public body asserts an exemption from disclosure, it has the burden of proving that the record is exempt by clear and convincing evidence

• shortens the time for public bodies to respond from seven to five business days

• provides that the first 50 pages for black and white, letter or legal sized copies are free and caps the charge for the remaining black and white, letter/legal sized pages at 15 cents per page. For copies in color, or in a size other than letter or legal, the bill provides that the public body may not charge more than its actual cost for reproducing the records

• establishes stiff civil penalties for violations by allowing courts to impose civil penalties between $2,500 and $5,000 against public bodies that willfully and intentionally fail to comply with the law or otherwise act in bad faith. The current law contains no penalties for failing to comply with FOIA.

This legislation puts much more power in the hands of citizens.

It makes requests more economical and makes it more difficult for government officials to hide behind current deficiencies in the law and provides real consequences to those who do.

Most importantly, for the first time, the legislation provides for real consequences to those who fail to comply with FOIA requests.   

The Illinois General Assembly deserves priase for its role in this effort. Bringing more sunshine to government has no downside.