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For Sunshine Week, a guide to FOIA

Sunshine Week – which runs Sunday through March 21 – is an annual nationwide celebration of the 1966 federal Freedom of Information Act. It’s also a celebration of access to public information and what it means to citizens, researchers and journalists.

As a way to mark the occasion, here’s a how-to guide for filing a request for documents. The following explains the who, what, when, why and how of the Freedom of Information Act.

What is it?

The Illinois Freedom of Information Act can be used by just about anyone to shed light on local, state and national governments, thereby holding public office holders, or any public body, accountable for actions and the use of taxpayer dollars.

The act essentially states you – the taxpayer – have the right to inspect public records, and that you are entitled to “full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts and policies of those who represent them as public officials and public employees.”

For instance, you can request email exchanges between city officials, payroll information, arrest information, and private firm contracts with local governments.

Of course, there are exceptions. The act balances the public’s right to know against individual privacy rights and governmental interests, according to a FOIA guide compiled by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Why should you care?

The act can lead to the exposure of wrongdoing. Take, for instance, The Associated Press’ recent stories shedding light on Illinois Congressman Aaron Schock’s use of taxpayers’ dollars to take lavish trips aboard private flights owned by key donors.

The FOIA act was dramatically rewritten after the 2009 Rod Blagojevich scandal, leading to a tightening of response deadlines and eliminating loopholes. The changes also created a “public access counselor” under the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

What are you after?

There’s a long list of records you can obtain under FOIA.

That includes public employees’ salaries, travel receipts and records, accident reports, meeting minutes, elevator inspections, audits, election records, condemnation records and tax records. Resident complaints are also on that list.

The city of Joliet lists the types of records subject to FOIA on its website.

But there’s also a long list of records deemed sensitive or confidential and therefore considered exempt from FOIA. Examples include student records, probation records, police reports related to an ongoing criminal investigation, personal medical records and personnel files.

Certain documents can still be made available. In that case, the public body in question must release those records to you, but can redact – or blank out – sensitive or identifying material. They must include a written explanation for the exempt material and/or denial of the record.

Who is subject to FOIA?

The act defines “public body” as any legislative, executive, administrative or advisory bodies of the state; state universities and colleges, counties, townships, cities, villages, incorporated towns, school districts and all other municipal organizations that are supported in whole or in part by taxpayer dollars.

That means members of city, village or county councils or boards, library boards, park boards, school boards and townships boards, among others.

How do you file a FOIA?

While a public body is supposed to honor verbal requests, it’s better – as they say – “to get it in writing.”

Most public bodies have sample letters or FOIA forms available. But an email, or a handwritten or typed letter, will do just fine.

Most often, a public body will have a designated FOIA officer. Other times, the village or city clerk will handle the request.

Be specific about the records you seek. Describe in detail the materials you want, along with the names of reports, places, or the period of time in which you are interested in.

The Illinois Press Association’s website has a sample letter for making a request under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. The association also has a sample letter for appealing denials.

When is a request filled?

The FOIA act requires a public body to comply with or deny a request within five business days of receiving it. The body may extend that window by another five business days under certain circumstances, according to “A Citizen’s Guide to Using the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.”

If your request is denied, you can appeal the decision by sending written notice of appeal to the head of the public body – i.e. the mayor, president or supervisor. That person has seven days to respond to the appeal, stating whether they’ve determined the records are open for inspection or should remain exempt.

If that doesn’t work, according to the Citizen’s Guide, you have the option of going to court or asking the Public Access Counselor in the Illinois Attorney General’s Office to review the matter.

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