Tougher Illinois FOIA law marks busy first year

December 22, 2010

Ashley Gross

It’s been one year since Illinois’s tougher Freedom of Information Act went into effect. The law required public officials to provide documents within five days instead of of the seven days they had been allowed. It also created a new office under the Illinois attorney general to handle appeals from members of the media or the public if their information requests are denied. Cara Smith runs that office as the public access counselor. She said her office has received more than 3,0000 appeals this year and has processed a little more than a third of those. The office staff includes 11 lawyers.  Smith said they aim to move quickly on appeals, but also must be thoughtful with these first-time decisons, "Part of our goal is that we want to get this right and we realize that with very little case law in Illinois, each one of these decisions is precedent setting and so our goal is to get it right and to get access to as much information as we can."

Josh Sharp of the Illinois Press Association says he expects the turnaround time on appeals will speed up in the second year the new FOIA law is in effect.  But he says there's already an advantage, because public officials now have to take FOIA requests more seriously. "For the past twenty-five years," he said,  "they could literally take your request, throw it in the trash and say, guess what, you don’t like it? Go find yourself a lawyer, we’ll see you in court. But now with the imposition of fines and penalties and a public access counselor, the days of ignoring FOIA are over."  

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