ILLINOIS PUBLIC INTEREST AND NEWS ORGANIZATIONS REQUEST THAT GOVERNOR PRITZKER PROTECT THE FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT AS ESSENTIAL TO GOVERNMENT BUSINESS AND OPERATIONS
Below, you also read the Letter to Governor Pritzker and Attorney General Raoul.
ELMHURST – The Citizen Advocacy Center and over two dozen Illinois public interest and news organizations have requested that the Governor’s office protect the Illinois Freedom of Information Act during the state’s disaster period as an essential governmental function.
The Freedom of Information Act is essential to the operation of local governments. Governor Pritzker’s Stay at Home Order, Executive Order 2020-10, identifies media outlets as essential businesses and operations; concomitantly, the media and the public’s most potent tool to monitor government activity is the Freedom of Information Act. “The Freedom of Information Act is central to our democracy and important to maintain government transparency, especially during difficult times,” said Robert K. Elder, President of the Chicago Headline Club. “We ask Governor Pritzker and the attorney general to uphold this vital part of maintaining public trust.”
The Governor does not modify any provision of FOIA in any of his COVID-19 orders, presumably because compliance is possible without compromising public health. In contrast, Executive Order 2020-7 modifies two provisions of the Open Meetings Act to advance social distancing measures. It suspends the physical presence requirement to comprise a quorum, and it expands the reasons for which elected officials could choose to meet remotely. The Governor also encouraged public bodies “to provide video, audio, and/or telephonic access to meetings to ensure members of the public may monitor the meeting.” Likewise, the Governor’s Office should continue to ensure that members of the public may monitor government activities by accessing public records.
Public bodies should comply with the Freedom of Information Act to the extent that compliance does not compromise the health and well-being of employees or residents. The protection of public health and compliance with FOIA are not mutually exclusive, where compliance does not violate social distancing or other public health measures. Government officials and employees continuing to work at the office or who are equipped to work from home should provide records in response to FOIA requests.
“Like other workers who are operating from home, government employees may respond to requests and inquiries remotely,” said Maryam Judar, Citizen Advocacy Center Executive Director. “A common-sense approach to FOIA compliance during the stay at home order is incorporated into the statute. FOIA officers may contact FOIA requesters to narrow requests, identify readily responsive records, and negotiate timelines without violating measures that protect public health.”
Undoubtedly the FOIA process will be less efficient during this crisis, as some records may be temporarily inaccessible. In such circumstances, public bodies may invoke the unduly burdensome provision of FOIA, as long as they reply to FOIA requests within five business days. They should additionally inform the requester that these records will be provided when regular business resumes.
The Citizen Advocacy Center is a 501(c) (3), non-profit, non-partisan, community-based legal organization with a mission to build democracy for the 21st century. Recognition by CAC is not in any way an endorsement of any individual who is or may become a candidate for public office. Founded in 1994, CAC strengthens the citizenry’s capacities, institutions, and resources for self-governance. For more information about CAC or to make a contribution, visit us at www.CitizenAdvocacyCenter.org.
For Immediate Release
April 24, 2020
Contact: Ms. Maryam Judar, Executive Director/Community Lawyer
Office: 630.833.4082 Mobile: 310.709.7081