Appeals for public information spike 22 percent
Why? More government denials, more public awareness
Illinois residents have the benefit of new laws aimed at opening up more government records -- and when they don't get the information they want, they're raising a stink about it.
Appeals to the Illinois attorney general's office for denied Freedom of Information Act requests jumped 22 percent last year. Most of those came from members of the public.
That increase could stem from more government denials of information requests, increased public knowledge about the right to public records, or other reasons, experts said.
"I think it's a combination of things. Members of the public as well as nonprofit organizations are more aware that they can come to our office for help. We are raising awareness, education and outreach about the office," said Ann Spillane, chief of staff for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
Appeals to the attorney general's public access counselor totaled 3,119 in 2012, according to an annual report. That's up 558 from 2011. When the office was created in 2005, there were just 419 appeals.
Illinois' FOIA laws recently were strengthened to eliminate or significantly decrease photocopy charges, require emailed documents if requested and mandate training on FOIA laws for government officials.
The majority of appeals come from individuals. In 2012, they appealed 2,507 denials of information requests. Members of the media appealed 513 denials, while the public access division handled 99 appeals from governments, nonprofit groups and other entities.
Hoping to cut back on appeals by reducing the number of denied requests, the public access division focused in 2012 on issuing more binding opinions. Binding opinions serve as legal precedents that governments must follow, Spillane said.
Madigan's office issued 15 binding opinions in 2012, up from seven in 2011.
"Have I always agreed with them? No," Don Craven, legal counsel for the Illinois Press Association, said of the attorney general's rulings. "They have been busy, but when you birth a new government office, it always takes time to work out the kinks."
Spillane said the agency is trying to head off lawsuits, especially because taxpayers cover the costs of both sides of intergovernmental legal squabbles.
For instance, Madigan's office continues to battle the city of Champaign, which is refusing to comply with an opinion that would require city officials to turn over communication regarding city business that was done on officials' private electronic devices.
Madigan's office contends information is not determined to be public record by "where, how or on what device that record was created," but rather if that information was used or created by someone in government to conduct "affairs of government." The attorney general's opinion was upheld by a circuit court judge, but Champaign officials are challenging the decision in an appeals court.
While the public has become more savvy with the state's FOIA laws, government agencies have become more obstinate, Craven said.
"Every time we think we've got them all trained, we have another election," he said. "The number of cases the (attorney general's) office is handling may have a lot to do with the responses government bodies are throwing out there."
The attorney general's office does not track how often its attorneys side with the appellant or the agency that's denying the information.
The attorney general's office can't punish governments that refuse to comply with its decisions. That's one of the most frustrating aspects of the state's laws, some said. But it's not the only one.
"Obviously, they need more teeth," said Lisle resident MaryLynn Zajdel, whose appeal to the public access office became the basis for one of the 2012 binding opinions. "There's nothing in the FOIA laws or the public access counselor's authority to take any action when governments use stall tactics."
Zajdel complained to the public access office that the DuPage County Forest Preserve District had redacted information in public documents because she hadn't asked for it, not because it was private, as the law allows. Madigan's office ruled that the forest preserve district had violated the state's FOIA laws, and the district eventually released documents with only private information redacted.
The public access office can issue binding opinions only within 60 days after the receipt of the request for review, said Maryam Judar, a community lawyer for the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center.
She and Zajdel believe extending that period would help prevent governments from delaying responses and preventing binding opinions.
While the workload for the office is growing, resources are not. Spillane said the attorney general's entire budget is roughly $30 million, or 1998 levels.
Eleven attorneys and five support staffers work in the public access office, and their combined salaries amount to $839,316, according to state financial records. Spillane said there are plans to add staff by leaving open positions in other areas of Madigan's office.
The public access office "is burdened with many requests for review because so many members of the media and public are utilizing it," Judar said. "So an investment in growing the staff to increase expediency of resolving the cases is needed."