Sometimes the good guys win…

This is a heartwarming FOI tale of persistence and truth prevailing in the end. The feel-good story of the week!

After generations of having their hopes dashed by immovable bureaucrats, dismissive officials and deferential judges, advocates of open government can hardly be blamed for being skeptical about the effectiveness of freedom of information laws. As the recent Illinois decision in Rock River Times v. Rockford Public School District shows, however, sometimes those laws actually work — at least in the end.

The document at issue in Rock River Times was a June 19, 2010, letter written by Patrick Hardy, a departing high school principal, to LaVonne Sheffield, then a controversial superintendent of Rockford Public Schools, one of Illinois’ largest school districts. In the nine-page, single-spaced letter, Hardy disputed Sheffield’s version of many events and accused Sheffield of poor leadership, dishonest management and excessive drinking.

Having heard about it, The Rock River Times, a small community newspaper, requested a copy of Hardy’s letter on Aug. 26, 2010, under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. On Sept. 1, the school district — following the procedures required by the act — advised the Times and Illinois’ Public Access Counselor that it intended to deny the request….

But wait!

…On Oct. 3, 2012, the Illinois Appellate Court for the Second District unanimously affirmed the trial judge’s decision, holding that the judge had correctly applied the amendments regarding awards of attorney’s fees and finding that the penalty was appropriate. In affirming the penalty, the appellate court was particularly troubled by the district’s reliance on the purported “verbal opinion” of the public-access counselor.

“Not only did the school willfully and intentionally violate the FOIA by raising a third exemption after the first two were denied,” the court said, but it also “‘looked for a way to save face’ rather than simply admit it was wrong.”

YES! Game, set, match, openness….

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Tweets and texts and emails, oh my!

Electronic communications — specifically tweets, text and e-mail messages — between city officials discussing public business are subject to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, even if they were sent from personal cellphones and accounts, a state circuit judge ruled.

Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt issued an oral ruling Monday ordering the Champaign City Council to turn over all such electronic messages to a local newspaper, The News-Gazette, affirming an earlier opinionissued by the Illinois attorney general’s office.

City Attorney Fred Stavins said officials are deliberating whether to appeal.

“We didn’t think the Freedom of Information Act covered that kind of stuff,” he said. “There is not that much law in that area.”

Last July, News-Gazette reporter Patrick Wade filed a request for all electronic communications, “including cellphone text messages, sent and received by members of the city council and the mayor during city council meetings and study sessions since (and including) May 3.” Wade’s request included messages on city-issued cellphones, e-mail addresses and Twitter accounts, as well as personal ones.

The city disclosed 24 pages of documents — with personal e-mail addresses and phone numbers redacted — and withheld the rest, claiming they were not public records because they were from officials’ personal e-mail accounts and phones.

Wade asked the attorney general’s office to review the city’s decision not to disclose the requested materials in full. The office issued its opinion in November 2011, declaring the city’s actions to be “clearly inconsistent with” the state’s FOIA.

Illinois Moves to Legalize WHat Already Ought to Be a No-Brainer: Recording Police at Work

Illinoisans would be allowed to make recordings of police officers in public under a bill that an Illinois House committee approved Wednesday.

Existing state law allows the audiotaping of a person only if both parties to the conversation give their consent. Videotaping doesn’t require consent, but only if there is no audio with the video.

The bill, HB 3944, now goes to the full House. It would allow “recording of a peace officer who is performing a public duty in a public place and speaking at a volume audible to the unassisted human ear.”

Most states allow audio recording of conversations with one-party consent — when any participant in a conversation gives consent to record it. A handful of states require consent from both parties to the conversation. Illinois requires consent from all parties to the conversation.

The Illinois law allows video recording with the sound turned off, as well as the audio recording of a distant event where the voices are not audible.

The Illinois law also has an exemption for news broadcasts. But with the Internet and blogs and YouTube, the line between citizens and journalists is blurring. And footage from citizens’ cellphones often ends up on the websites and broadcasts of large news organizations.

The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police doesn’t necessarily oppose a change to let people record police activity, but it wants changes of their own, said the group’s lobbyist, Laimutis Nargelenas.

Illinois Punishes Those Who Make a Lot of FOI Requests. Funny, I Always Thought This Was Called Self-Governance.

This strikes me as an odd time for truly horrific FOI legislation to hit the books, but…

Changes to the state’s Freedom of Information Act allow government agencies to delay response times to individuals who are deemed to have made too many requests.

The “recurrent requester” provision of the law signed by Gov. Pat Quinn Friday allows government agencies to delay responses up to 21 days for individuals who make more than seven requests in a week, 15 requests in a month or 50 requests in a year. The state’s FOIA law requires government agencies to fulfill information requests within five days, though taxing bodies can demand a five-day extension if they deem the request to be too time-consuming.

In today’s theme, this, again, was a bill many, many state legislatures have considered, and then, after a brief period of sobriety, realized that this is the legislative equivalent of attacking a molehill with a nuclear weapon.


Illinois Moves to Slow Down Frequent Requesters

The State Journal-Register has the story:

People who frequently file Freedom of Information Act requests would have to wait longer for their requests to be fulfilled under a bill that passed the Illinois Senate on Monday.

House Bill 1716 allows public bodies to take up to 21 days to respond to FOIA requests by people who have filed more than 50 requests to the same public body, more than 15 requests in a month and more than seven requests in a week.

Once the initial response is sent out, public bodies can fulfill the request, based on its size and complexity, within a “reasonable” amount of time, unless the information is exempt from disclosure.

The bill would not apply to the news media or non-profit or scientific organizations.

The legislation is needed because some frequent requesters, who still may have good intentions, “bog down local governments and deprive taxpayers and other inquiries of due consideration,” said Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, the bill’s sponsor.

The legislation also removes a requirement that the attorney general’s public access counselor pre-approve a public bodies’ decision not to release information covered by certain exemptions in the law. It also allows fees to be charged to commercial requesters whose requests will take more than eight hours to fulfill.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan supports the bill, while the Illinois Press Association was neutral. The Better Government Association and the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform testified against the bill.

Illinois To Become Latest State to Embrace Secret Gun Records…

My Guns 006

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From the AP:

Illinois lawmakers voted overwhelming Friday to bar the public from knowing who holds a firearm owner identification card, a victory for gun owners who say they have a right to privacy over open-government advocates who say such records should not be secret.

In a 42-1 vote, the Senate passed a measure overturning a ruling by Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office that said the names are public under the state’s open records law. It now goes to Gov. Pat Quinn, who said he agrees the information should remain confidential and will “act accordingly” after reviewing the legislation.

Madigan’s office issued the decree earlier this year after the Illinois State Police refused to release to The Associated Press the names of 1.3 million people who are registered to own firearms. The AP’s request set off howls of protests from gun owners and the state police, who said they feared criminals would use the information to steal guns or target those who aren’t armed.

“We’ve always felt that the intent of the FOID law was to keep everything private,” said Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association. “We have (privacy laws) for medical records … anything that could be used to do harm to the public should be kept secure.”

Madigan’s office said the State Police had given no proof to back up claims that releasing the names would endanger gun owners, and said the opinion applied only to permit holders’ names and the expiration dates on their permits; addresses and phone numbers would remain private. The AP did not ask for cardholders’ addresses.

My take: classic emotional FOI argument that trumps reason. The specter of those cunning gangs of thieves preying on gun owners — a ridiculous trope trotted out in state after state — just KILLS the boring but completely true accountability argument.


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A Good FOI-Driven Story: The Toxic Courthouse

After rumors and some public comments about toxicity in the county courthouse, KWQC News did the right thing — they FOIAd the reports.

The Knox County (Ill.) board is trying to figure out what to do with the courthouse. Board members voted to renovate the building and hired a construction company; however, a few board members decided to stop everything after tests on toxic substances came back.

KWQC submitted a Freedom of Information Act request and the results are back. Tests show asbestos in several parts of the building. Floor tiles, linoleum, textured parts of the ceiling, the boiler breeching and mud joints, all have asbestos.

25 random radon tests were done all over the building. The levels ranged from 2.2 to 28.5. A majority of those levels are higher than the EPA and Illinois Emergency Management Agency Recommended action level of 4.0.

Illinois Poised to Hide Gun Registry

Hiding the identity of gun owners is always a political hot potato, as elected officials shrink from the ire of those who argue that there is a privacy right buried somewhere in the Second Amendment. I think there is a legitimate debate to be had here, but unfortunately, it seldom happens as few in position to pass legislation seem eager to challenge the many untested assumptions of harm inherent in the arguments of those seeking secrecy.

Gun owners in Illinois could have their identities shielded from public disclosure under legislation that passed the House Friday.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan has contended lists of gun owners who have Firearm Owner Identification cards should be retrievable under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Legislation sponsored by Rep. Richard Morthland (R-Cordova) would amount to an end-run around Madigan. Morthland’s bill passed the House 98-12 and now moves to the Senate.

“I appreciate the work of the attorney general,” Morthland said. “But there is a pressing need to keep this information private. It would create a situation where there’d be increased possibility for gun violence in the State of Illinois should this not pass.”

I’m still waiting for the first real example of the rocket scientist criminals supposedly scouring public records looking for houses to raid based on gun ownership.



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A Year Later, Attempts to Weaken Illinois FOI Law Loom…

From the Chicago Tribune:

A little more than a year after Illinois lawmakers rewrote open records laws promising a new era of transparency and accountability, frustrated mayors, school superintendents and police chiefs are back in Springfield, looking to undo many of the provisions.

More than three dozen bills — from minor tweaks to major overhauls — were filed this year to change the state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), most with the goal of reducing access to records.

“Look, we are not trying to stop any legitimate claims for information,” said Alsip Mayor Patrick Kitching, who asked his state senator to file a bill that could limit the rights of political enemies to inundate agencies with records requests.

“It gets to a point where people in the office can’t do the public’s business. We’ve been paralyzed by someone who is using FOIA as a weapon,” Kitching said, referring to a stack of 90 records requests his village received one day last year from a former police chief and Village Board candidate locked in a bitter political feud with the mayor.



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Wow. A Federal Judge Finds Limits to FERPA!

University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign

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A federal judge has concluded that a federal privacy act does not bar the University of Illinois from releasing information about hundreds of college applicants who appeared on an internal list of well-connected students, the basis for the Chicago Tribune’s 2009 “Clout Goes to College” investigation.

U.S. District Judge Joan Gottschall said the U. of I. is mistaken in citing the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 to deny the Tribune’s request for certain information for the series of articles examining a formalized admissions system that allowed subpar but politically connected applicants to get into the university over more qualified candidates.

Monday’s ruling notes that the opinion “is a narrow one,” affecting only the U. of I.’s contention that the act prohibited the information’s release. In its repeated denials of this and other Freedom of Information Act requests, the university also has cited the act’s privacy exemption.

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