Monday, August 17, 2009

A victory for reform: Freedom of Information Act improvements signed into law

The state law intended to guarantee Illinoisans access to government records got a much-needed overhaul today, when Gov. Patrick Quinn signed a bill strengthening the law’s enforcement provisions.

The Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, is supposed to ensure taxpayers have access to government records. But the law is too-often not followed or altogether ignored, preventing Illinoisans from gathering information about their governments’ work.

Numerous reform groups, including ICPR and the Illinois Reform Commission, worked with Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office this winter and spring to draft a rewrite of the existing FOIA. On Monday, Quinn signed into law the group’s work-product, Senate Bill 189.

The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2010, makes a number of critical improvements to FOIA and its partner, the Open Meetings Act. Among them:

- Shortens the amount of time public bodies have to respond to FOIA requests to five business days from the current seven-day allowance. The legislation also shortens the extension public bodies can grant themselves to five days from the current seven.

- Makes permanent the position of Public Access Counselor, or PAC, within the Attorney General’s office, and grants the counselor power to help resolve FOIA disputes. The PAC will have the power to issue both advisory and binding opinions as to whether requested records are public.

- Mandates that courts award attorneys’ fees to records-requestors who successfully sue for access to open records after illegally being denied access to them. The current law gives judges discretion to award attorneys' fees, which means that people who take their records requests to court -- and win -- might be left to foot their attorneys' bill.

- Requires designated government employees to complete annual FOIA and Open Meetings Act training to educate them about state law and help ensure compliance.

- Strengthens enforcement provisions by allowing courts to impose civil penalties for public bodies that intentionally disregard the law.

You can check out the text of the new law here.

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