CHICAGO—Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office resolved more than 3,330 requests from the public for help in obtaining public records and public meeting information last year, .
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The information was released in the Public Access Bureau’s annual report this spring. The report documents compliance statewide with the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Open Meetings Act (OMA).
“Public Access Bureau continues to receive an increasing number of requests for assistance to obtain public records,” Madigan said, in a statement.
In 2015, the Public Access Bureau received 4,770 formal requests for assistance pursuant to FOIA and OMA. By comparison, the bureau received 4,032 requests in 2014 and 1,950 requests in 2010.
The Public Access Bureau’s role is to analyze and work to resolve disputes regarding the release of public records and the public’s access to government meetings. The public and members of the media may ask the bureau to review instances in which they believe a public body improperly denied their request for records or if a public meeting was not held in accordance with OMA.
The vast majority of the requests in 2015 came from members of the public and not the media. Of the new requests received, 3,385 matters were resolved.
“When we refer to ‘resolved’ cases, we mean that the file has been closed, which can be done for various reasons,” Annie Thompson, press secretary of the Office of the Attorney General, told the Cook County Record. “While it does not mean that in every instance the requestor obtained the records being sought, in many cases, it does. Other cases may be resolved with the determination that the public body properly withheld documents, or the request was filed too late, was incomplete, etc.”
Since 2010, the Public Access Bureau has closed over 85 percent of the matters received, but more work remains to be done.
“We have made progress in fostering greater transparency in Illinois, but it is clear we still have work to do to ensure access to government at all levels,” Madigan said in the statement.
Fifteen binding opinions were issued by the bureau to enforce Illinois’ open records and open meetings laws. One of those opinions was in relation to a FOIA request for financial records related to Garth Brooks’ appearance at the Allstate Arena. Rosemont officials denied release of the records and adopted a rule ordinance in an attempt to keep the financial information from having to be publicly disclosed. Madigan concluded the ordinance did not supersede FOIA and financial contracts with public bodies must be disclosed.
Additionally, Madigan’s office noted several requests were made in 2015 for police records and police dashboard camera videos. The Public Access Bureau found three instances in 2015 where the records and videos were improperly withheld.
While a majority of the requests were resolved, 1,385 were not resolved. That figure doesn’t include denials for information that were not appealed to a Public Access Counselor, so Madigan’s office can’t say for certain what common reasons officials give to members of the public and media when opting to withhold documents, Thompson said.
“Generally speaking, in the requests for review received by the PAC, private information, personal information and preliminary drafts/opinions are common exemptions relied upon to withhold or redact portions of public records," Thompson said.