CHICAGOIllinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has released the first report about the work of the Illinois Public Access Counselor.
According to the statistics in the report, in the first year since the creation of the Public Access Counselor, more than 1,000 members of the public, government bodies and the media have contacted Madigans office with complaints and concerns regarding the Illinois Open Meetings Act (OMA) and the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Madigan said the statistics reveal more than 75 percent of the 1,011 matters brought to the Public Access Counselor between Dec. 20, 2004, and Dec. 31, 2005, were requests from Illinois citizens.
Madigan released her offices statistics during the second annual National Sunshine Week, March 12-18.
In December 2004, Madigan created the Public Access and Opinions Division in her office and appointed Terry Mutchler to serve as the states first Public Access Counselor.
The Public Access Counselors role is to ensure public bodies understand the requirements of the Sunshine laws and conduct their business openly, and to ensure the public has access to government information.
Madigan said first-year statistics show one common problem regarding FOIA is the overcharging of fees by a government agency when documents are requested by a member of the public. The Act permits a public body to charge the actual cost of reproduction, but not for additional costs such as for research or attorneys fees.
In one instance, a citizen contacted Madigans office after being charged $100 in attorneys fees simply for processing a request for information. In another instance, a school district denied a request for public records, forcing the requestor to go through another channel, which eventually would have cost $400. Madigans office intervened in both situations, and the requestors received the records for a very small copying charge.
The most common problem regarding the Open Meetings Act deals with confusion with members of public bodies as to when they can go into closed session and when they cannot. In one case handled in the past year, a member of the media and a citizen contacted the Public Access Counselor after members of the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) were seen to have a private lunch with representatives of Peoples Energy. At the time of the lunch, the utility had matters pending before the ICC. Because the lunch involved a meeting of the majority of the quorum of the public body and public business was discussed, the lunch was a clear violation of the OMA. Following an investigation, Madigans office directed the ICC to cease such activities.
To enhance understanding and compliance with the states sunshine laws, Madigans office has conducted 75 training sessions across the state for citizens, government officials and members of the media. The trainings provide participants with a practical understanding of the Illinois OMA and FOIA information concerning what a government official must do to comply with the acts, and details about how citizens can use these acts to participate in open government.
Madigans office also provides in-depth guides to the Illinois OMA and FOIA. Those guides can be accessed online at www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/government/openmeet.pdf and www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/government/FOIA guide.pdf.
Public Access Counselor Terry Mutchler can be reached by phone at (217) 524-1503, or by writing her at the Attorney Generals Springfield office at 500 S. Second St., Springfield, IL 62705. She also can be reached by fax at (217) 785-2551.
The 2006 Public Access Counselor Annual Report is available online at www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/government/Public Access Counselor Annual Report.pdf.
From the May 24-30, 2006, issue