MADIGAN: NEW LAW BRINGING GREATER TRANSPARENCY TO ILLINOIS GOVERNMENT
Attorney General Details Public Access Counselor Activities since January 1; Releases Public Access Counselor Statistics for 2009
Chicago—Attorney General Lisa Madigan today reported that the new law designed to strengthen the State’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Open Meetings Act (OMA) is already beginning to increase transparency in Illinois government. By giving binding legal authority to resolve open government disputes to the Public Access Counselor (PAC), the new law, which took effect on January 1, created a process that makes it easier for the public to gain access to the inner workings of government bodies. Madigan outlined the work of the Public Access Counselor during the first 10 weeks under the new law in commemoration of Sunshine Week, which began Sunday.
“As we drafted and worked to pass this new law, we focused on the need to restore the public’s confidence in government,” Madigan said. “Our goal is to ensure transparency at all levels of government and, as a result, to establish a new standard of accountability and openness in conducting the people’s business.”
“Members of the public are already taking advantage of the new process in place for ensuring transparency,” Madigan added. “Those seeking public information are reaching out to the Public Access Counselor to gain help in obtaining public information or accessing public meetings. In addition, many public bodies are seeking guidance from the Public Access Counselor before making decisions in response to FOIA requests. While there is still much work to do, this is a good beginning to ensuring that government truly does belong to the people.”
From January 1, 2010, when the new law took effect, through March 10, 2010, the Public Access Counselor has received 394 requests from public bodies for authorization to assert the personal privacy and draft exemptions in FOIA. Under the new law, if a public body plans to deny access to information by asserting that the information is exempt from disclosure under the personal privacy or draft exemptions, it must first seek authorization from the Public Access Counselor. This new provision in the law allows the PAC to carefully review the use of two of the most frequently cited exemptions to public disclosure.
The Public Access Counselor also has received 273 Requests for Review from members of the public and the media. Under the new law, when a member of the public or the media believes that a public body has violated FOIA by improperly denying access to a document or has violated OMA by failing to properly open a meeting, he or she may ask the Public Access Counselor to review the public body’s conduct. The PAC is currently handling these Requests for Review using the timing and process outlined in the new law and, to date, has not issued any binding opinions. Also under the new law, the Attorney General’s Office created electronic training programs for government employees who are involved in responding to FOIA requests or ensuring compliance with OMA. Through March 10, 2010, 5,922 individuals have participated in the online training programs.
As is Madigan’s Sunshine Week tradition, she also released her Public Access Counselor Annual Report for 2009, detailing the PAC statistics for the year. In 2009, Madigan’s office received 1,942 requests from members of the public, government bodies and the media for information and assistance with FOIA and the Open Meetings Act.
As in past years, the 2009 statistics show that members of the public seeking access to government information continued to lead all requests for assistance. In 2009, members of the public wrote to or called the Public Access Bureau for help in 1,323 instances, more than 68 percent of the overall number of requests for assistance from the Public Access Bureau. Additionally, during 2009, Madigan’s office conducted 45 training sessions to educate members of the public, government officials and members of the media about their rights and responsibilities under FOIA and OMA. During the fall, in anticipation of the new law taking effect on January 1, Madigan’s office also conducted 13 seminars around the state to foster awareness and understanding of the new requirements of FOIA and OMA.
During the 2009 legislative session, Attorney General Madigan worked with legislators and open government advocates, including the Illinois Reform Commission, to strengthen the transparency laws and hold government more accountable. The new law codifies the position of Public Access Counselor and gives the PAC the legal authority to review and determine whether documents must be disclosed under FOIA or whether a government body has violated the Open Meetings Act. Madigan appointed Cara Smith as Public Access Counselor in December and expanded the staff of the Public Access Bureau.
She also created a dedicated Hotline and e-mail address to reach the Public Access Bureau. Anyone seeking assistance from the Public Access Bureau can call the Public Access Hotline at 1-877-299-FOIA (3642) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Attorney General’s Web site, www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov, also offers extensive educational materials on FOIA and OMA, including Frequently