Chicago – In recognition of Sunshine Week, Attorney General Kwame Raoul released the Public Access Counselor Annual Report with details of a sampling of over 3,300 new matters received in 2022. Additionally, Raoul encouraged the public to join Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) officers and public officials in two webinars hosted by the Public Access Counselor (PAC) during Sunshine Week.
The PAC works to increase transparency in Illinois government by resolving disputes regarding public bodies’ compliance with the state’s FOIA and Open Meetings Act (OMA). The 2022 report also describes how the PAC trained thousands of individuals in seminars related to Illinois’ transparency laws.
“The Public Access Counselor in my office works throughout the year to ensure government agencies are accessible to the Illinois people they serve. I’m proud to highlight that hard work and transparency during Sunshine Week,” Raoul said. “To ensure public bodies understand their obligations under transparency laws, I encourage appointed and elected officials, as well as the public, to attend critical and thorough trainings led by experts from my Public Access Bureau.”
Since the PAC’s creation under state law in 2010, members of the public and the media have submitted more than 52,000 matters to the PAC for review. Last year, the PAC received 3,366 formal requests for assistance pursuant to FOIA and OMA – an average of nearly 280 new matters per month.
The PAC’s determinations have created new and important legal guidance in Illinois to enforce the public’s right to obtain public records and to ensure meetings are open to the public, thereby fostering increased transparency in government. They have successfully clarified the law, especially on issues that have not been addressed by courts.
In addition to analyzing and resolving disputes through binding and non-binding opinions, the PAC conducts trainings, both remote and in person, that inform government officials about their duties under FOIA and OMA. Last year, the PAC bureau hosted 14 webinars attended by more than 2,500 individuals. This week, Raoul is encouraging FOIA officers, elected and appointed officials, and the public to attend Sunshine Week webinars by registering via email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The two available training events are:
- FOIA for Public Bodies Webinar: March 14, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
- Open Meetings Act – Better Understanding and Compliance Webinar: March 16, 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
In 2022, the PAC issued 14 binding opinions, decisions that are enforceable in court and create legal guidance concerning Illinois’ government transparency laws. Among the notable matters that resulted in binding opinions last year were the following:
- 22-004, issued March 11, 2022: A reporter submitted a request for review alleging the Mount Prospect Police Department improperly redacted most of an email that its police chief sent to department employees during his final day in office. The PAC determined that because the email directly concerned department policies, procedures and the conduct of employees, the email pertained to the transaction of public business and met FOIA’s definition of “public records.” The PAC also concluded that the email could not be withheld, as it had a direct bearing on the public duties of public employees and was not part of the give-and-take of any decision-making process.
- 22-006, issued May 6, 2022: The Board of Education of Community Consolidated School District No. 93 discussed at a public meeting its COVID-19 Layered Mitigation Reduction Plan and reached a consensus to change the district’s masking guidelines, but did not provide advanced notice to the public of that action. The board argued that because it did not take a formal vote on the plan, it did not need to list the subject matter on its agenda. The PAC determined that the board took “final action” on the district’s masking guidelines when it reached a consensus on the matter and then implemented its decision, and that its failure to take a formal vote did not relieve it of the obligation to provide notice to the public that it intended to take that action.
The PAC also helps resolve transparency issues between government bodies and members of the public through the use of non-binding determinations and informal negotiations. Here are some examples of such resolutions:
- 2022 PAC 71297: The Chicago Fire Department asserted that a FOIA request seeking complaints filed by an alderman’s office against department employees was unduly burdensome. After a PAC attorney worked with the requester to narrow the parameters of the request, the department conducted a search, located responsive records and provided them to the requester.
- 2022 PAC 73390: A mother whose daughter experienced lead poisoning from an apartment the family was living in submitted a FOIA request to the Kane County Health Department seeking all information concerning lead testing in the apartment. The department denied the request in its entirety under the Lead Poisoning Prevention Act. After communications with the PAC about a provision of the Lead Poisoning Prevention Act permitting disclosure to certain individuals, the department reconsidered and provided the requester with copies of responsive records.
- Letter 72733, issued Oct. 7, 2022: A member of the public submitted an OMA complaint alleging the Board of Education of Community Unit School District 200 improperly discussed whether to ban a book in closed session. The board argued that the closed session discussion was allowed under the OMA exception permitting closed session discussion about specific employees of the public body, because the discussion concerned whether school librarians appropriately placed the book in the high school libraries. The PAC’s review of the closed session recording found that while the discussion touched on the process for resolving complaints about media selected by staff members, the board deliberated at length on the contents of the book, whether or not it should remove the book from the library, and the logistics of voting on the matter in open session. Following the PAC’s determination that the closed session discussion was improper, the board released the closed session minutes and recording. When the complainant then asked the PAC to review previous closed sessions of the board where the same issue may have occurred, the PAC communicated with the board and secured its disclosure of all other closed session minutes and recordings from book banning discussions.
Any group or entity interested in attending or hosting a training conducted by a representative of the Attorney General’s office can email email@example.com for more information. More information about Illinois’ sunshine laws, as well as a copy of the report that includes frequently asked questions can be found on Raoul’s website. For assistance from the Public Access Bureau, contact the hotline at 1-877-299-FOIA (3642), or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.