How to find public information in Illinois
If you're looking for information from one of Illinois' nearly 7,000 units of government, there's a good chance you can find it on its website.
Government agencies have begun volunteering more and more financial documentation -- current and historical -- on sites these public bodies maintain. They have also been required by state law to provide certain data online, like employee salaries. And anyone looking for a government agency's budget or financial audit is likely to find it online.
The first step in tracking down public information should be the government agency's website, with a phone call to the agency if you need help locating the information online.
For more specific information that's not located online, most residents still have to rely on the state's Freedom of Information Act. The Illinois Attorney General's website offers assistance in drafting such requests for information.
The Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center also offers free help. Executive Director Maryam Judar said there's "an art and science" to crafting a successful public records request.
When sculpting a request for public records it's important to remember that government agencies don't have to create a new document to fulfill a request. However, they are required to provide someone with all the records available to comply with the request. A good phrase to include in requests for public information is "or document sufficient to show," so the government body can't deny a request because you called a document by the wrong name.
"We can help draft a request that a public body might be more responsive to," Judar said.
Because the state's open records law places the onus on government agencies to justify denying access to certain documents, Illinois residents can ask to see anything their government creates.
But the state law gives those agencies plenty of reasons to withhold information, and there's little in the way of punishment for elected leaders or appointed officials who violate the state's law.
Among the dozens of exempt materials are birth dates, addresses, ZIP codes, drafts of policies, public utility maps, medical records and minutes from meetings of public bodies during closed sessions. When public officials deny access to records they are required to explain why they believe the documents are exempt. Merely claiming the exemption is not enough.
If a request is denied, you can send a "request for review" to the attorney general's Public Access Counselor's office. Attorneys in that office will decide whether the records should be made public or not.
The final remedy in seeking documents a public body is withholding is to file a lawsuit in circuit court.