Transparency advocates weigh in on a Wheeling resident's FOIA requests

Government transparency advocates have mixed views on Deborah Wilson's approach to filing public records requests with Wheeling.

Don Craven, president of the Illinois Newspaper Association, said rare but extreme examples - such as Wilson's case - in which a resident files numerous Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests can lead to legislation to reduce transparency.

"Examples such as this, depending on what she's been looking for, could become the poster child for a change or amendment to FOIA to restrict access," Craven said. "I don't think it happens very often at all, but it only takes one bad example to have bad legislation drafted."

Wheeling officials have asked for guidance at the state level, citing the cost and disruption to village operations from dealing with the requests. They contacted the public access counselor in the Illinois Attorney's General Office for help, a spokeswoman said.

"We have provided the village with guidance and information about FOIA provisions pertaining to frequent or large requests," the office said. "Residents of Illinois have a right to information about government operations, and the Attorney General's Office encourages public bodies to comply with all transparency laws."

The law does allow municipalities to ask for longer deadlines for recurrent requesters and fees for voluminous requests.

Additionally, repeated requests from the same person for the same records previously provided or properly denied are "unduly burdensome" and may be denied on that basis, according to the Illinois Attorney's General Office.

Both Craven and Ben Silver, an attorney for Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center, cautioned against attaching a price tag to complying with the Freedom of Information Act.

While watchdog groups and residents filing FOIA requests sometimes find issues that "stick," other times they do not.

"Not everything turns out to have a lot of substance," Silver said. "But the whole point - the whole structure - is citizens being able to participate in the process."

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