Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests pour in to the city on a daily basis from residents and others requesting public records.

Currently, the City Clerk is Evanston’s designated FOIA officer for records, with the Collector’s office and Law and Police departments handling requests pertaining to their departments.

Devon Reid
Council member Devon Reid (right), 8th Ward, is seen at an Oct. 18 meeting of the Evanston City Council. (Photo by Bob Seidenberg) Credit: Bob Seidenberg

At the Dec. 6 City Council Rules Committee meeting, council members discussed a referral from their colleague Devon Reid, 8th Ward, proposing that they create a committee to oversee the city’s compliance with the Freedom of Information Act as well as the Open Meetings Act.

In discussion, Council member Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, the senior council member, argued that a new committee is not necessary because the council already has the responsibility.

“I think the City Council is this committee and has the authority to monitor our FOIA and Open Meetings Act compliance,” she said, “And, in the past, when the council had questions about this, and we have many times – ‘What is appropriate?’ [and] ‘Are we following the rules correctly?’ – we have made a request of the [Illinois] Attorney General to get the correct opinion on this.”

Mechanism already in place

In that same vein, Council member Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, pointed out council rules provide that the Rules Committee, composed of all nine alderpersons and the mayor, has the responsibility to ensure compliance with the Open Meetings Act.

As for administering FOIA requests, she noted that the City Clerk has responsibility in that area.

“Perhaps the council would like to ask for an annual FOIA report from the City Clerk, something like that,” she said, “but I don’t see the need for a separate committee.”

Council member Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said she has heard “now and again” concerns people have raised about the FOIA process, including complaints that people had to wait a long time or that their request was denied when it should not have been.

She was undecided, she said, whether a new committee was needed as much as council members “just getting our hands around” the issues.

Council members might want to look into departments where concerns are raised about records not being released “to make sure that’s not happening and that we have staff in place” to handle the requests, she suggested.

No need to offload residents’ appeals

Reid, who served as City Clerk before his election to the City Council in April, referred to his experience with the Clerk’s office’s handling of FOIA requests as support for his proposal.

“Yes, there exists a process for a resident to appeal to the Attorney General’s office,” he said, in response to the statements by other council members. “But that process takes quite a long time for the Attorney General’s office to get back to a resident.”

In addition, the process takes some staff time, he said, requiring the city’s Law Department to correspond with the Attorney General’s office about the matter.

As a public body, Reid argued, “we have the responsibility and the ability to create our own internal process, which is what I think this [new] committee would be,” he said. “So instead of residents feeling like they have to go to the Attorney General’s office, they can request that it come to this committee to look at.”

He said the committee would then look over the appeal and make a recommendation to the full council.

“You don’t have to offload that to the Attorney General’s office, and you increase transparency and trust,” he said.

He also said the Attorney General’s office issues either a binding or a nonbinding opinion on appeals of city rulings.

He estimated that during his four years as Clerk, 90% or more of the time the opinions had been nonbinding.

“And in fact the city has been taken to court for those nonbinding opinions,” he said.

Evanston City Council
The Evanston City Council conducts its Dec. 6 public meeting. (City of Evanston photo)

Council member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, joined Reid in supporting city review of staff denials.

“I’m not sure it requires a separate committee to be formed,” he said, “but I would love for this body to hear some of those appeals, if we could clearly define which should go before this committee as opposed to the [Attorney General’s office].

“I just don’t want people to have to spend their hard-earned money to sue the city for public records that we shouldn’t just be making available to the public,” he added.

Committee members did not reach a decision on the issue, as it was set just for discussion.

As the next step on the issue, Reid requested that the city’s four FOIA officers – the City Clerk, the Law Department, the Collector’s office and the Police Department – furnish a report to the Rules Committee that would include the number of FOIA requests the city has received over the past two years, how many denials there have been as well as the most common reason a request was denied.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.