The village of Oak Park is dedicated to transparent government and a user-friendly village hall. In my campaign, I pledged to make government more accessible by putting additional information online for easy access. The new FOIA law recently signed by Gov. Pat Quinn challenges all levels of government to meet the same kind of standards we have set for government openness in Oak Park.
However, this law also presents challenges to the taxpayers of Oak Park with provisions that do not reflect the balance of responsibilities between government and requesters of information that our federal law provides.
While we have always provided free information to the press, costs for most requests by others will now be borne by the taxpayers of Oak Park. For requests other than for commercial purposes, the new FOIA law prevents charging a requester a nominal fee for letter and legal size copies when the total volume is under 50 pages, and reduces the Village’s current fees for additional pages.
The new law also imposes legal and monetary penalties if an unforeseen delay prevents response within the shorter timeframes of the new law. The people of Oak Park will pay a penalty to the state of Illinois for such a delay.
How can this happen?
Despite our current efforts to make records electronic, most information is stored in boxes in various locations around the village, and it takes staff time to retrieve it. The cost of digitizing these older records is currently beyond our limited budget.
It’s also necessary for privacy protection to remove certain personal information from some records, and this requires a careful review of each record to remove such information before release.
The request for information is not equal throughout the village. A few individuals represent the bulk of requests, and may even demand duplicates of material they have already received.
The Village of Brookfield was “shut down” for three days when one individual presented over 200 FOIA requests at the same time, requiring that all staff set aside regular duties to accommodate these requests within the required time period.
These are the challenges we face today. As we make more materials available online and electronically, we hope to continue to respond promptly to requests. We will work with requesters to assure that all requests are as specific and detailed as possible to put the right information in their hands within established time frames.
Teresa Powell is Oak Park’s village clerk.