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FOIA tweak could make getting info tougher

August 31, 2011

By Benjamin Yount
Illinois Statehouse News

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Ed Fleck said he believes the numbers on his water bill now.

But in 2010, Fleck and a handful of other people in tiny Wapella questioned whether the water bills they were receiving online from village leaders were correct.

After asking for copies of his water bill from the village, Fleck said he was ignored or turned away, so Fleck, his wife and a friend turned to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to get physical copies of their water bills, as well as other bills from Wapella.

The first half of 2010 turned into a flurry of FOIA requests, FOIA denials, accusations of political bitterness, and a fight that landed the feud in Wapella on newspaper front pages across central Illinois.

Fleck, his wife Elizabeth, and friend Jane Buraglio filed 253 FOIA requests with Wapella village leaders between February and June 2010.

I filed, I don’t know, about 60 or 70 FOIAs over a period of a year-and-a-half or so,” Fleck said. His wife and Buraglio filed the rest.

Fleck is quick to say he only wanted to know what was going on in his hometown of 558 people.

Information that had readily been available previously, all of a sudden was not available,” said Fleck. “OK’d bills, bill registries, payroll information, just about anything that had been available previously.”

Fleck, who served on the village board from 2005 to 2010, said previous village leaders were open with public information, including water bills, which are levied by the village.

But that’s not how Sharron Riddle, who in 2010 was the only elected village trustee in Wapella, sees it.

They asked for everything. They even asked for the instruction book for the copy machine,” said Riddle. “They were nosy.”

Riddle said she remembers spending hours addressing the “ungodly” number of FOIA requests. But she insisted she complied with them.

A new law signed last week by Gov. Pat Quinn (D) gives local public officials and government bodies, like Riddle, more time to comply with FOIA requests from so-called “recurrent requesters.” The law took effect as soon as it was signed.

Someone becomes a “recurrent requester” by filing more than seven FOIA requests in seven days, 15 requests in a month or 50 in a single year. Media, universities, nonprofits and scientific organizations are exempt.

Under the previous law, a public body had to respond to a FOIA request from a recurrent requester within five days. However, the new law requires a response only in a “reasonable period of time.”

This new law really deals with people who clearly use FOIA as a harassment tool,” said Brian May, the lead attorney for the Illinois Municipal League, which is a leading lobbyist for Illinois’ local governments.

Most of the cases involving FOIA have nothing to do with information,” May said. “They have to do with the process of finding that information,” which involves employees spending a great deal of time searching for the requested information.

But Fleck said he worries about what will happen to the next person who must resort to FOIA to obtain information from their local leaders.

It sends the message that ‘We think you’re a crackpot. We don’t have to deal with you like we do everybody else. We’re going to do it at our own pace, and you’re just going to have to be satisfied with it.’ And I think that’s wrong,” said Fleck.

Whitney Woodward, policy associate with the government watchdog group Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said everyone should be worried anytime government, especially in Illinois, is allowed to become more secretive.

For every instance of someone using FOIA as a political tool or to harass someone, there is an instance of a taxpayer being denied information that they want,” Woodward said.

Woodward said complying with FOIA requests places a financial strain on local governments, but she added that the information and the person collecting it have “been paid for with taxpayer dollars.”

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