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updated: 12/22/2010 11:12 PM

Madigan cheers first year under new FOIA

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Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office is pleased with the way the new, toughened Freedom of Information Act has been applied this year, and says the law has proved to benefit members of the general public even more than it has the media.

"Things are moving along, I believe, quite well." said Cara Smith, Madigan's deputy chief of staff and public access counselor. "I think it's paying off."

Smith said that, heading into the last days of the year, the Attorney General's Office had processed more than 5,000 FOIA matters, more than 3,000 of them requests by government agencies to pre-authorize denials, of which 91 percent were closed. The office had almost 2,000 requests for review, or appeals once FOIA requests had been denied, of which 67 percent are closed.

Smith said the overwhelming majority of original FOIA requests -- about three-quarters -- were filed not by media, but by members of the general public.

Smith said that, since this is the first year the Attorney General's Office has been actively involved in requests, denials and appeals, it's "hard to gauge" how much public participation has grown, but "my sense is it's increased tremendously."

She attributed that to how, in the past, media had other forms of leverage to exert on public bodies to get information, while the only form of appeal for the public following a FOIA denial was to file a lawsuit.

"For most people, going to court is a big deal," Smith added. "The media don't need FOIA as much as the rest of the world."

The Attorney General's Office, too, she said, improved its process over the course of the year, as it increased staff to deal with FOIA issues -- now 14 attorneys -- and got more adept at building case law and handling routine requests.

"We're getting more efficient at turning those pre-authorization requests around," Smith said. "Each and every issue was a brand new one for us, and we were striving to get it right."

Under the new FOIA, when a public body intends to deny a request for information, it usually seeks pre-authorization from the Attorney General's Office on one of two grounds: unwarranted invasion of privacy or that the matter is part of a preliminary draft or deliberative process. The Attorney General's Office passes along its ruling on the matter, then, depending on whether the body was obliged to release the information or did so, either the filer or the government can request an appeal.

Smith said there have been instances when a public body simply refused to grant a FOIA request, and the Attorney General's Office is working with Gov. Quinn to improve compliance, but, she added, "With some exceptions, public bodies are trying to get it right."

"Illinois was (in 1985) the last state in the union to pass a public-records law," Smith added "and we have had a tortured history with respect to FOIA."

That has greatly improved under the new act, she said, and the Attorney General's Office has no new suggestions for the General Assembly, in part because the law could actually be watered down if reconsidered.

"There's no glaring problem, and we would like to continue working under this law exactly as it's on the books now," she said. "If we're not calling for change, I would hope there would not be any."