The decision by the Village of Oak Park to remove the village clerk from the loop regarding Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests has been reversed, following widespread criticism over the change put in place late last year.
Days before the Christmas break, the village removed Village Clerk Vicki Scaman as the primary contact for FOIA requests.
Prior to the change, the majority of FOIA requests began at the clerk’s office. Scaman argued that cutting her out of the loop would reduce transparency at the village and result in more rejected FOIA requests.
Scaman told trustees at the board meeting that FOIA requests have increased substantially over the last few years, noting that her office received 648 in 2016, 904 in 2017 and 1,335 in 2018. That doesn’t include the requests made directly to the Oak Park Police Department, which received approximately 1,000 requests last year.
Village officials argued that the change was largely technical and aimed at implementing a new computer system called Laserfiche that would direct FOIAs to the Village Attorney’s Office, rather than the clerk.
At the Oak Park Board of Trustees meeting on Jan. 28, the board unanimously approved a joint recommendation by Scaman and Village Manager Cara Pavlicek. Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb was not present.
The two officials hashed out the changes with Abu-Taleb, following the rollout of the new system in December and subsequent outcry from groups like Oak Park Call to Action.
Among the most notable of the changes approved at the Monday board meeting are that the Village Clerk’s Office will again receive automatic notification of all electronic FOIA requests.
The village clerk also will serve as the primary FOIA officer of the village. The village attorney and police records supervisor also will serve as serve as official FOIA officers of the village.
All responses to FOIA requests also will include contact information for the clerk in the event that the requestor has any questions concerning their FOIA.
Other changes include:
- A weekly report of the status of all FOIA requests for review by the village clerk and the village manager to ensure that the village manager “can work with staff related to any FOIA production questions identified by the clerk.”
- Staff training by both the village clerk and village manager on public records requests.
- A status report to the board of trustees in May/June or earlier upon request.
- The understanding that the village clerk will continue to assist and provide information concerning questions about the appeal process for rejected FOIAs.
At Monday’s meeting, Scaman thanked Abu-Taleb “for helping to broker” the discussion with the village manager to reach a compromise on the FOIA change.
“I support these changes,” she said. “I believe they will provide my office with the necessary access to the process to responsibly assist requesters.
“The intention is not to interfere with the staff role of advancing requested information within the law and make technology improvements that benefit us all.”
She said the changes would improve communication between the Village Manager’s Office and the Village Clerk’s Office, with the new weekly review of FOIAs and effort to continue to improve the process.
Trustee Deno Andrews said he believes the new approach provides checks and balances for FOIAs making their way through the process. He said the village needs to do a better job of communicating with residents about such changes.
Trustee Dan Moroney said the village owes it to staff and the clerk’s office to do the work as efficiently as possible, noting the rapid increase in FOIA requests over the last few years.
He added that he did not see “nefarious intent” in the change that took place last year but thanked officials for coming to an agreement.
Trustee Jim Taglia also thanked village staff for finding common ground on the FOIA question, saying that the agreement “provides clarity to both the public and village staff. He noted his position that he “strongly supports an independent clerk answerable to the voters.”