Lightfoot Administration Walks Back Aggressive COVID-19 FOIA Policy

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaking at O’Hare International Airport
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaking at O'Hare International Airport with Jamie Rhee, commissioner of the city's Department of Aviation, on March 15, 2020. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ
Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaking at O’Hare International Airport
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaking at O'Hare International Airport with Jamie Rhee, commissioner of the city's Department of Aviation, on March 15, 2020. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

Lightfoot Administration Walks Back Aggressive COVID-19 FOIA Policy

Hours after City of Chicago officials started issuing automatic denials for public records — citing staff shortage because of the COVID-19 pandemic — officials backed off the policy, saying records requests would be evaluated “case by case.”

On Wednesday, a WBEZ reporter received an automated response to a Freedom Of Information Act request related to COVID-19 and filed the same day with the Chicago Department of Health.

“Due to the COVID19 National and State public health emergency, and the Governor’s issuance of a disaster proclamation, the City of Chicago is in the process of scaling back on workforce and non-essential City operations and duties,” the automated email from the Health Department FOIA office stated. “The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) responses have been deemed a non-essential City operation and are being temporarily suspended until further notice. As a result, your FOIA request is denied as the processing of your request during this statewide emergency declaration is unduly burdensome pursuant to Section 3(g) of FOIA.”

The Illinois Attorney General in an email said that’s not what they’re advising.

“Public bodies should continue to comply with FOIA and respond to each request promptly, to the extent possible, and we are contacting city officials to offer guidance,” the email to WBEZ read.

And Gov. JB Pritzker at an afternoon briefing said while limited staffing may slow their responses, the state would continue to fulfill FOIAs.

After WBEZ and other news outlets reported on the automatic denials, the city said it would stop issuing them, saying Mayor Lori Lightfoot was committed to transparency.

Still, officials said the city’s process for complying with FOIAs would likely be altered, with guidance on that to come in days.

“In light of the paring down of city personnel and services to the essentials, we will no doubt be compelled to adjust our response to FOIA requests,” an evening statement from Lightfoot’s office read in part. “The City will issue new common sense FOIA policies as soon as practical.”

FOIA requests are used by citizens, reporters and companies to obtain government information or communication readily available to the general public.

Just Tuesday, Lightfoot announced a decision to drastically reduce the city’s workforce to curb the spread of COVID-19. Only public safety departments, she said, will be working at normal capacity.

Earlier Wednesday, when asked about the denial emails to FOIA requests, the Mayor responded, “I don’t believe that’s correct.”

“We may have asked for additional time, but we certainly haven’t taken that action yet, that I am aware of. Obviously, responding to a FOIA request is something we take very seriously,” Lightfoot said.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office posted a guidance for local governments, including temporary exemptions to the state’s Open Meetings Act, the law that mandates how public meetings are held. On the topic of Freedom of Information Requests, the letter reads, “Public bodies should continue to comply with FOIA and respond to each request promptly, to the extent they are able to.”