Mayors ask Illinois Attorney General for more time to respond to requests for public records

(The Center Square) – Mayors across the state want the Illinois Attorney General to give municipalities additional time to respond to public records requests as they operate with fewer employees during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The state’s Freedom of Information Act requires public bodies five business days to respond to requests. The law allows public bodies to extend the response deadline by five business days for a number of reasons. However, nearly 200 mayors and the Illinois Municipal League, which lobbies on behalf of municipalities, have asked Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul to issue an advisory opinion giving public bodies additional time to respond to such requests amid the pandemic.

“We believe in transparency and the public’s right to access information about their government. We are not asking to halt public access to municipal information, but we are seeking a common-sense solution that would simply provide cities, villages and towns more time to respond to these requests during this historic challenge,” Illinois Municipal League Executive Director Brad Cole said in a statement. “Communities across Illinois are already being forced to make excruciating decisions as they work to maintain vital services with fewer resources. They should not have to worry about facing costly legal challenges related to information requests as well.”

The Illinois Municipal League said taxing bodies of all sizes have been struggling to maintain core services during the outbreak and some have been operating with reduced staff.

“Municipal leaders are not asking the Attorney General’s office to unilaterally void public access laws, but to use the authority of his office to extend response deadlines until the Stay at Home order is lifted and staffing levels are restored,” the Illinois Municipal League said in a news release.

The Illinois Attorney General’s Office had already told municipalities that it had no authority to change existing state law.

“None of the Governor’s executive orders issued to date, the Attorney General Act, nor FOIA provides the Office of the Illinois Attorney General or the Public Access Counselor with the authority to suspend FOIA’s statutory deadlines,” the Illinois Attorney General’s Office wrote in an open memo this month. “Only an executive order issued pursuant to section 7 of the IEMA Act can suspend the statutory deadlines or an act of the General Assembly can alter such deadlines. Public bodies, therefore, should continue to comply with FOIA and respond to each request promptly, to the extent they are able to, given the limitation on staff and resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The guidance also encouraged cooperation.

“Given that the length of the pandemic remains unknown, it may be difficult to respond to the request even with an extension. Both requesters and public bodies should keep in mind that FOIA allows the public body and the requester to come to a mutually agreeable response period to comply with a FOIA request,” the memo said. “Members of the public and media are asked to keep these considerations in mind and are strongly encouraged to work with public bodies to agree on reasonable and appropriate response times in light of the public health concerns that we all face.”

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