Naperville officials again scoff at high FOIA volumes

Some call it the cost of doing the people’s business, but for the second time in little more than a year, Naperville officials are complaining about the high costs of replying to numerous Freedom of Information Act requests.

City Clerk Pam LaFeber said Tuesday the city has received and responded to more than 150 FOIA requests over the past two years. She did not identify those filing the requests, but a majority of them between Feb. 11, 2011, and Feb. 12, 2013, were related to the Naperville Smart Grid Initiative and filed by the Naperville Smart Meter Awareness group.

Councilman Joe McElroy, a former journalist, raised the issue near the end of Naperville’s city council meeting.

“I understand (FOIA) really well. But I also understand there’s a cost involved in everything we do,” McElroy said. “I’m wondering what we can do to quantify all of these Freedom of Information requests. I’m also wondering if they are coming from the same small group of people.”

LaFeber said her office has received six requests in the past 30 days, three of which were submitted Monday.

“In the last 30 days we have had three FOIAs that have been submitted and have taken approximately 25 hours of staff time from employees in three different departments. Two of these FOIAs are completed and one is being reviewed,” she said. “(Monday) we had three additional FOIAs submitted and those will likely take a significant amount of time.”

LaFeber said the work costs the city an average of $50 an hour. Last year the city’s total estimated staff time spent on replying to the requests and related legal issues was 1,475 hours at a cost of $73,750.

“We can definitely resurrect (those numbers) and update them,” she said.

Councilman Steve Chirico said he understands such requests are “a way of life” for municipalities.

“FOIAs are important, but what bothers me are the costs associated with them. Do we budget for those?” he asked. “As troubling as the unnecessary FOIAs are, it’s us having to use highly skilled professional time to track down all of this stuff.”

Councilman Grant Wehrli suggested residents “just ask” for information.

“If you ask me I’ll send you stuff,” he said. “We have to be responsible of people’s money and I’m afraid this group is now knee-deep in wasting it.”

Councilman Bob Fieseler suggested council members also could cut down the amount of paperwork being sorted by using another form of communication.

“The amount that’s put in emails, if you thought about some of the things that are written, you could probably just pick up the phone,” he said. “Then we wouldn’t have so much to wade through.”

Resident and smart meter opponent Tom Glass said he was responsible for “exactly 11” of the requests received and mostly denied by LaFeber’s office.

“I think it shows the arrogance of Grant Wehrli to attack taxpayers for holding their government accountable and demanding transparency,” Glass said. “The fact that the costs of FOIAs discussed by (Wehrli) haven’t changed from the last time he put on this charade over a year ago really make me wonder about his motivations for bringing this up again right before the city council election. This wouldn’t be the first time that this council inappropriately used city resources for political purposes.”

Last week, Naperville announced it had won a “Sunny Award” from Virginia-based Sunshine Review, a nonprofit organization dedicated to state and local government transparency. In February, the city received an “A+ transparency grade” from the same organization.

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