The way Evanston processes Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and releases information to the public erupted into controversy recently when City Council voted on Sept. 25 to temporarily remove the Next Request system from public view due to privacy concerns. At the Council’s Rules Committee meeting on Oct. 16, the matter came close to resolution, though a disagreement between Mayor Stephen Hagerty and City Clerk Devon Reid relating to whether responses will be given only to the requestor or made available to the general public remains to be fully settled.
The issue resulted from the release of personal information in a police report that was posted in the City’s Next Request system and made available for public view. Clerk Reid said he removed the police report immediately when he was advised of it. He said he has since instituted procedures that, he said, will correct the problem and insure such public releases never occur again.
The Next Request system, a software interface package, serves as the tool used by the City to process and respond to all FOIA requests. The system tracks requests, reminds the City of deadlines, allows streamlined forwarding of requests to relevant departments, and offers a straightforward method for citizens to submit FOIA requests. It also provides a way for the City to provide responsive documents to the person who submitted the FOIA request.
Next Request also permits the City to post both the request itself and the response to the request publicly on the City’s FOIA website, and there are variations on how this can be done. The Next Request system has been down since the Sept. 25 City Council meeting, but as Fourth Ward Alderman Don Wilson stressed, FOIA requests have been received and processed since then – just without the Next Request system.
The City historically processed FOIA requests for many years before the Next Request system was implemented about two years ago.
The Committee voted on Oct. 16 to resume using the Next Request system, though FOIA requests and responses will not be made accessible to the general public until City Council adopts an FOIA Policy. That policy may determine such things as whether the requestor’s name will be made available to the general public on the Next Request system, whether the request will be made public, whether the requester will be given the option of making the request public, whether names will be redacted from the response, whether the response will be made public, whether police reports will be treated differently from other types of responses, and other issues.
“I never ran for Mayor thinking we would have a huge discussion about FOIA,” said Mayor Hagerty. Prior to Clerk Reid’s taking office, the Mayor said, responses to FOIA requests went only to the requestor. The requestor would then have the option of making the response public or keeping the response for whatever purpose led to the request in the first place.
Mayor Hagerty used emails as an example. If someone were to request all emails that were sent to him in September, he said, the response would contain information that probably should not be public, such as, “I lost my job” or “My neighbor’s dog keeps defecating on my property.” While all emails to the Mayor by definition become public records, they should not be broadcast on the internet, he said.
“FOIA responses should go to the requestor only,” he said.
“I share Mayor Hagerty’s view… that the response should go to the requestor,” said Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward. “I don’t think that people that wrote an email about not being able to pay their water bill expect… it to be made public,” she said, especially since such requests are searchable, and easily located, using Google searches.
Clerk Reid said the request field could be searchable, but not the response. “Someone decided Google’s spiders would crawl through our Next Request system,” said Clerk Reid. “We also have the option to contact Google and tell them not to send their spiders into our Next Request system.”
The Committee indicated a desire to keep Google’s spiders out.
Ald. Wilson pointed to the City’s “Open Data Portal,” accessible with an email address and password, as a useful tool. The City stores thousands of documents, searchable and fully accessible to all, on the Socrata software-based ODP. “I’d like to find ways to expand that,” he said.
As for the processing of FOIA requests in the future, the committee reviewed a draft FOIA policy designed to govern FOIA requests and responses. The policy will be revised by Clerk Reid, taking into account things like the Google limits, and will return in November for adoption. Until then, Next Request will be up and running, but requests and responses will not be available to the general public until an FOIA Policy is adopted. The ODP will continue to provide data to the public. FOIA’s will continue to be processed.
Council also voted to name the City Clerk as Evanston’s designated FOIA officer. Prior to Oct. 16, former Clerk Rodney Greene and his deputy clerks were listed as the City’s official designated FOIA officers. The office, and not the individual, will now hold the title.
A number of citizens then cheered, having spoken vigorously in defense of the Clerk at public comment. Several were under the mistaken impression that FOIA duties had been taken away from the Clerk when the decision was made to take down the Next Request system.
“There was a legitimate problem,” said Ald. Wilson, referring to the release of private information over Next Request’s public access feature. “Collectively, we identified a legitimate problem. Collaboratively, we addressed the problem.”