When Natalie Brower Potts asked how many journalists had filed Freedom of Information Act requests, a majority of the hands in the room went up. When she asked how many received responses without any problems, only one hand went up.
One reporter immediately brought up a problem. She had been told she was becoming a nuisance with her FOIA requests. The law states, Potts said, that journalists cannot be considered recurrent requesters. Potts is head of the Center for Open Government at IIT-Chicago Kent College of Law, the only center of its kind in the nation. She kicked off the Chicago Headline Club’s workshop on filing FOIAs March 17, hosted by IIT-Kent.
Maryam Judar, an attorney with the Citizen Advocacy Center, and reporter Angela Caputo of the Chicago Reporter also weighed in with their expertise.
“FOIA doesn’t spell out every single situation,” Potts said. “You have to fight for it sometimes.” And if you don’t get what you seek from the public body, go to the Illinois public access counselor’s office. “They’re your friend.”
Before you go to the PAC, give public bodies the benefit of the doubt, Potts said. Give them a call, tell them what you need, let them help you narrow your request so it is within their abilities. “Be nice to them. They work hard.”
Also, Potts said, put your request in writing so you have a paper trail. Email is fine. And you can file a FOIA anonymously. You don’t have to give a reason for your request. But you cannot use FOIA to ask a question.
Copying fees should be waived, according to the law, “in the public interest.” That’s for the first 15 pages, though more can be negotiated.
Warning: although FOIA requires a response in five business days, getting the information “takes longer than you can believe.” Assume about three weeks “if all goes well.” And if you go to the state public access counselor, you need to do it within 60 days. See that “out of the world” website for more information: http://foia.ilattorneygeneral.net/
The helpfulness of the public access counselor’s office was also stressed by Judar, who focused on the Open Meetings Act. Closed sessions can be conducted only for discussions of such things as personnel, litigation and negotiations. Public comment periods are required at open meetings. Court records are public.
“Be a stickler for the rules,” Caputo said. “You can’t play nice.” But, she said, act nice. “You have to kill people with kindness.” After she files a FOIA, she phones the FOIA officer to make sure her request was received. She will call back on the fifth day to make sure her request is being honored. And, if you don’t get what you are looking for, “write about what you don’t have.”
Headline Club President Steve Franklin told the 35 people at the training session that governmental units say journalists don’t know what to ask for. “Turn the tables.”
Everyone received how-to guides from the Citizen Advocacy Center and from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. You can get them here:
— Susan S. Stevens