The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government. Evanston residents had the opportunity to ask questions and engage in a hands-on training at a FOIA Workshop on Aug. 24 at Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center, 1823 Church St.
Hosted by A Work of Faith Ministries Inc. (AWOFINC), the training was facilitated by City Clerk Devon Reid. Also answering questions about FOIA law was attorney Merrick Wayne of the Freedom of Information Act & Government Transparency Team at the law firm Loevy & Loevy.
The workshop was one way “to educate folks about FOIA, the most powerful tool a citizen has: access to records other than the ballot,” Clerk Reid told the RoundTable.
Signed into law in 1966, with an effective date one year later, on July 4, 1967, FOIA provides the public the right to request and receive access to federal agency records, unless the information requested falls under one of nine exemptions which protect interests such as personal privacy, national security and law enforcement.
The federal FOIA does not apply to records held by state and local government officials, but many states, including Illinois (5 ILCS 140), have laws that provide public access to records of state and local government bodies upon request.
Although Evanston’s FOIA portal, NextRequest, was designed to be relatively easy to use, “it can be a bit daunting” for new users, said Clare Kelly, an Evanston resident and teacher at Evanston Township High School. Ms. Kelly helped to secure 10 laptop computers on loan from the high school to give workshop participants hands-on practice in filing FOIA requests.
“It was really an educational event where Evanston residents could learn about their rights to access information from a public body,” Ms. Kelly said.
One of the benefits of filing a FOIA request is that the request can be taken to other levels if the information sought is withheld. When asked, “What happens when a FOIA is denied,” Clerk Reid identified three remedies: “You can speak with the FOIA Officer, and they may be able to provide some things. If they don’t, the next steps are to go to the Public Access Counselor in the State Attorney General’s office, or to retain an attorney to file a lawsuit to get the records.”
Residents may file a request for review with the Public Access Counselor, giving any person the option to appeal request denials within the agency without legal representation.
At the conclusion of the workshop, Mr. Reid announced that the Clerk’s office is working with Loevy & Loevy attorneys Matt Topic and Josh Burday to draft a “Best Practices for FOIA and Transparency in Evanston.” The plan is to fund the project with $5,000 in donations from the community, and the report will be put before City Council for its consideration and possible adoption of some of the proposed best practices.
Mr. Wayne had the final word at the event. “I want to make it clear; there’s more you can get than you can’t get…There’s no magic to submitting a FOIA request,” he said.