Monday, December 13, 2010

Reporters get the scoop on contribution limits, FOIA at ICPR co-sponsored workshop

Two wonky topics near and dear to ICPR’s heart – campaign finance reform and the Freedom of Information Act – were the subject of a media workshop sponsored by ICPR, the Chicago Headline Club and the Attorney General’s office today.

The Monday morning forum was designed to provide reporters with information about changes to the laws and answer their questions about their implementation. Audio recordings of the presentations can be accessed here.

Andy Naumann, the deputy director for disclosure at the Illinois State Board of Elections (SBE), and ICPR director Cindi Canary, outlined the state’s first-ever campaign contribution limits bill, which takes effect Jan. 1 – smack dab in the middle of the municipal campaign season, including the contest to be Chicago’s next mayor. (Check out ICPR's briefing book for reporters on the statute here.)

Until the law is fully implemented, some questions about how the limits and enforcement provisions created by the statute will remain unanswered. Those questions may linger well after the new year, when the law takes effect, because the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) and the SBE are poised to announce an extension on the rule-making for the contribution limits law, Naumann said. Those rules, which the committee is tasked with approving, provide the SBE with direction on how to implement the contribution limits and disclosure system approved by lawmakers last year.

It’s unclear what affect, if any, the delay in rulemaking will have on the implementation of the bill. Even with their absence, the law takes effect Jan. 1.

The date those contribution limits go into effect will mark the one-year anniversary that Illinois’ updated open records law, FOIA, took effect.

One of the most significant improvements in that law was the permanent creation of the Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor, the state’s official open records czar. Cara Smith holds the PAC position and is responsible for mediating records request disputes and training officials on their duties to provide the public with access to government information.

Smith said her work has mainly been addressing three types of inquiries: general questions about the law, requests for review of records denials received by individuals, and pre-issuance reviews of records denials public bodies seek to make in specific instances.

These inquiries have inundated the Public Access Counselor’s office, which includes about 11 attorneys, Smith said, because public officials are paying attention to the need to abide by the law. For years, reporters and members of the public have complained that public bodies illegally ignored or denied records requests – which spurred the law changes, which took effect Jan. 1, 2010.

Smith offered a few suggestions for records requestors:

- Consider discussing lengthy or detailed requests with the public body. A conversation can help ensure that a request is understood correctly, and may help tailor broad request into a more specific (and useful) inquiry.

- If a public body requests direction from the Public Access Counselor for only a portion of your request, ask the body to provide the rest of the information that isn’t in question. That way, you will get timely access to at least some of the information sought.

- Specify the type of format in which you would like to receive your sought records. The FOIA specifies that units of government must provide records in electronic format, if feasible, if requested by the information-seeker.

- If your request has been denied, you have 60 calendar days to file an appeal with the Public Access Counselor. In return, the PAC has 60 days to respond or issue a binding opinion, with the option of issuing 21-business day extension to complete the response. Appeals can be mailed to:
Public Access Counselor,
Office of the Attorney General
500 S. 2nd St.
Springfield, IL 62706
Or e-mailed to

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