What is FOIA? It’s the acronym for the Freedom of Information Act, which is a law designed to give the public the right to access documents and records from their governmental agencies.
FOIA laws have been enacted at all levels of government with the intention of improving transparency and accountability, whether amongst our publicly elected officials or within the taxpayer-funded management and staff who handle the day-to-day operations.
According to FOIA.gov, federal government agencies are required to disclose any information that is requested – unless that information is protected from public disclosure – and automatically disclose certain information, including frequently requested records.
Information regarding the State of Illinois’ FOIA can be accessed via the Illinois Attorney General’s Office (foia.ilattorneygeneral.net), and the Better Government Association can provide easy guidelines for filing a FOIA request (bettergov.org/watchdog_training/foia.aspx).
Of the property-taxing bodies in Elmhurst, the city typically receives the most FOIA requests, which can be written by the requester or filed by completing a request form. Requests can be submitted in person at City Hall at 209 N. York St., via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by fax at 630-530-3014. Online information is available at elmhurst.org.
FOIA requests are also made of other property-taxing bodies such as Elmhurst Public Schools District 205 (elmhurst205.org/cms/page_view?d=x&piid=&vpid=1330872351033), Elmhurst Park District (epd.org/freedom-information-act) and Elmhurst Public Library (via the city), whose Board of Trustees is appointed by the Mayor with the approval of the City Council.
Each body has an appointed FOIA Officer (or Officers), including the Deputy City Clerk for the city, Executive Assistant to the Superintendent for District 205, and the Executive Director, Director of Finance and Human Resources and Administrative Office Manager for the EPD.
In 2013, the city’s FOIA Officer reported responding to some 830 requests, or more than three per business day on average. City officials have estimated the annual cost of FOIA-related staff hours at a quarter of a million dollars, which can’t be recouped from the requester. The city can seek reimbursement only for nominal related expenses such as copying and certification.
While members of the news media likely account for the majority of FOIA requests nationwide, it is not uncommon for individuals, unions, political parties, government watchdog organizations and business associations (including chambers of commerce) to seek information on a variety of issues, especially when they involve taxation, zoning or economic development.
Unfortunately, FOIA requests can also be used just to “make work” for some government employees. In one case, two legal boxes worth of requested documents were never picked up from City Hall. While not transparent, the requester’s message seemed clear.
John R. Quigley is president and CEO of the Elmhurst Chamber of Commerce.