The Illinois Freedom of Information Act is "intended to open the government to all citizens by guaranteeing access to governmental records in whatever form they are maintained," according to the state attorney general's office.
Reporters use the FOIA regularly to nudge government officials to produce documents or data. But researchers, attorneys, businesses, activists, and other people also submit FOIA requests all the time, and while it's a necessary tool for collecting information about our public offices and agencies, it's even more useful as a reminder to public officials that those records don't technically belong to them--they belong to us, their funders and employers.
Well, that's the idea, anyway. The truth is that the FOIA is only helpful if the office you're dealing with is competent enough to actually keep the records, find them, and make copies (you'd be surprised at how many aren't). And then you need either (a) an office that knows and respects the law or (b) attorneys available to explain it to them and raise a stink.
I bring all this up as a way to say that I recently sent out FOIA requests to a few Illinois public officials. Under the state law, public bodies have seven working days to respond to requests in writing, and in fact most of my requests were complied with in a few days.
But a couple weren't. After two-and-a-half weeks I followed up with calls to the offices asking for the information ASAP.
By law, FOIA requests can be delayed or even denied for a number of reasons. I once sent in a FOIA asking for a tour of a city garbage sorting facility, because Streets and Sanitation Department officials were ignoring my less formal requests. It was a long shot, and sure enough, I was denied access on the grounds that a city facility is not a public record. (And they never did let me tour any of the the sorting centers to catch a glimpse of how many recyclables are not separated and kept out of landfills in the Blue Bag recycling program.)
Officials can also deny requests in the interests of public safety or personal privacy, and they can delay their responses if they need more time to collect, compile, or copy.
But I'd never known that the law offers an exemption to officials who have gone fishin'.
Yet several days after I left some voice messages asking about the status of my FOIAs, one of the slow-moving officials replied with a letter: "I am asking for an extension to your official request under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act," it said. "I will be on vacation and upon my return I will forward you that information."
I suppose this official deserves credit for being straightforward, because he easily could justified his delay another way, such as by saying: "Pursuant to the Illinois Compiled Statutes, 5 ILCS 140/3(d) (ii) and (vi), your request dated July 17, 2007, cannot be complied within the seven (7) working day time limit prescribed by the law. As further provided for in the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, a seven (7) day working day extension is hereby requested in order to comply with your request."
That's how another official responded to another request I made. It was accompanied by a call from a staff person in the office explaining that they were sorry for the delay, but the person who would get the records together for me was on vacation.