MADIGAN: NEW YEAR BRINGS NEW ERA OF TRANSPARENCY TO ILLINOIS
Procedures in Place to Assist Public Bodies, Members of the Public and Media with State's Transparency Law
Chicago— Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced today that she has established procedures as part of her office's implementation of the new provisions in the state's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Open Meetings Act (OMA). To help the public obtain access to government records and meetings, Madigan has appointed a Public Access Counselor (PAC), expanded the staff of the Public Access Bureau and created a dedicated Hotline and e-mail address to reach the public access staff. The new law, which took effect on Jan. 1, strengthens the state's sunshine laws and will make it easier for the public to gain access to the workings of government bodies in Illinois.
"My office has worked diligently to put in place the resources and procedures necessary to undertake this transparency effort," said Attorney General Madigan. "We look forward to working with all Illinoisans as we move forward. I encourage the public and government officials to use the resources available through my office."
Attorney General Madigan named Cara Smith as the office's new Public Access Counselor and added Deputy and Assistant Public Access Counselors to the Public Access Bureau. Smith, a deputy chief of staff in the Attorney General's office, will oversee the Public Access Bureau and work to ensure that government bodies throughout Illinois are complying with FOIA and OMA.
Over the last two months, Madigan's office has conducted 30 seminars around the state to educate the public and government officials on the changes to the transparency laws. Over 3,000 government officers and members of the public attended the seminars. The Attorney General's Web site, www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov, also offers extensive educational materials on FOIA and OMA, including Frequently Asked Questions about FOIA and OMA and a Guide to the work of the Public Access Counselor.
Anyone seeking assistance from the Public Access Bureau can call the Public Access Hotline at 1-877-299-FOIA (3642) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
During the 2009 legislative session, Attorney General Madigan worked with legislators and open government advocacy groups, including the Illinois Reform Commission, to strengthen FOIA and hold government more accountable. With the enactment of the new law, the Public Access Counselor is a permanent position in the Attorney General's office and has the authority to review and determine whether documents must be disclosed under FOIA or whether a government body has violated the Open Meetings Act.
"We set out to craft this new law to help restore the public's confidence in its government," Madigan said. "Our goal is to ensure transparency at all levels of government and, as a result, to establish a new standard of accountability and openness in conducting the people's business."
The law's groundbreaking provisions make Illinois the fifth state in the United States to give its Attorney General's office authority to make binding decisions on transparency issues. In 2004, Madigan created in her office the position of Public Access Counselor to work with members of the public, the media and government bodies to resolve disputes under the sunshine laws and ensure access to government information. The PAC's decisions, however, have not been binding on government bodies, resulting in instances in which governments have continued to deny access to public records or government meetings.
Further, under the previous law, the public had little recourse when government bodies refused to comply with FOIA. The new law changes that, enabling courts to impose civil penalties of $2,500 to $5,000 when a government body willfully and intentionally violates FOIA.
Additionally, where the former FOIA law gave courts discretion to consider awarding attorneys' fees and costs to a plaintiff who successfully sued to obtain a public record, the new law requires courts to award reasonable attorneys fees - making it less burdensome for members of the public to sue to enforce their right to government information.
The new law also significantly strengthens and clarifies FOIA to make it easier for people to obtain public records. In particular, the law establishes a "presumption of transparency" for public records and requires government bodies that want to withhold a document to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the law allows them to do that. The new law also shortens the initial time for a government body to respond to a FOIA request from seven to five business days. Other critical changes to the law will enhance the public's access to documents, including a more narrowly defined personal privacy exemption, a cap on the amount a government body can charge for copying the public documents requested through FOIA, and a requirement that public bodies produce records in electronic format when possible.
The new law also requires public bodies designate employees or officials who will be required to complete an annual electronic training on FOIA and OMA prepared by the Public Access Counselor.
With the new law taking effect on Jan. 1, Madigan announced her office's Public Access Bureau staff:
Public Access Counselor - Cara Smith
Chief Deputy Public Access Counselor - Amalia Rioja
Deputy Public Access Counselor - Heather Kimmons
Deputy Public Access Counselor - Sara Gadola Gallagher
Assistant Public Access Counselor - Amanda Lundeen
Assistant Public Access Counselor - Lola Dada-Olley
Chief, Public Access and Opinions Division - Michael Luke
Paralegal - Elizabeth Kopp
Paralegal - Jackie Pryor
Administrative Secretary - Delores Herren