Illinois Municipalities are in limbo on how to respond to public information requests during the COVID-19 pandemic. 200 mayors and the Illinois Municipal League have issued a request to Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul to grant public bodies additional time to respond to Freedom of Information requests to avoid fines and fees. The response time for a FOIA request is between 5-21 business days. News media outlets and requests for non-commercial usage are usually returned in 5 business days according to the Freedom of Information Act.
IML Executive Director Brad Cole explains that all public bodies must comply with the Freedom of Information Act: “We fully support the Freedom of Information Act. However, under the Governor’s stay at home order many municipal employees are not at work, and therefore, they cannot process the requests for information. We’re in a situation where we either comply with the governor’s order to stay at home or we comply with the Attorney General’s authority to enforce Freedom of Information act requests. Can’t do both. We are asking for the Attorney General to give guidance that will allow additional time to get beyond the stay at home order so municipal employees can go in and actually respond to these requests.”
Cole says that it has nothing to do with the current executive orders by mayors or COVID-19 decisions. “The requests that we are concerned about don’t have anything to do with the current state of emergency. These are regular, routine, and in many cases nuisance requests where somebody is asking for information that doesn’t have anything to do with anything current. Maybe they are asking for information from a year or two ago, or something just to be a chronic FOIA submitter. There are people that do that to be a burden on municipal government. We reply to all of those and we understand and are willing to do that, but we don’t have the resources and the staffing to do it during this stay at home order.”
Cole says they are not asking for a halt to FOIA requests but just an allowance of more time to meet those requests. “This only requests an extension of time equal to the governor’s stay at home for Freedom of Information Act requests. It doesn’t say that we don’t want to ever respond. It doesn’t say that we won’t respond. It just says that we need more time to respond because we’re not in the office and able to access the information being requested.”
Cole says in larger municipalities, workers are being pulled away from front line, essential duties to respond to the requests in a timely manner. He and the mayors from around the state hope that Raoul’s office will use its authority and advisory opinion to grant extensions as long as the stay at home order is in place.