Public-information access officers required under new law

By on December 4, 2009

by Martha Quetsch
MAPLE PARK—Local municipalities are reviewing the new “sunshine laws” designed to improve access to public information, readying for compliance Jan. 1.

On that date, the state’s revised Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) will take effect.

Maple Park Village Attorney Kevin Buick told trustees Tuesday that the FOIA changes are “sweeping and dramatic” and encouraged them to study the revisions carefully on the Illinois Attorney General’s website.

“The Attorney General (Lisa Madigan) was key in shaping these changes, which are designed to ensure the public has broad and open access to public records,” Buick said during the Village Board meeting.

A major change in the act is that communities must appoint a FOIA officer to be in charge of receiving and responding to public information requests in compliance with the law.

Every new FOIA officer must complete an electronic training program through the Illinois Attorney General’s office by July 1, 2010.

Elburn officials recently named Village Administrative Assistant Janet McGowan as the village’s FOIA officer. McGowan received training from the Attorney General’s office in October for the position, Village Administrator Erin Willrett said.

Kaneville and Sugar Grove officials have designated FOIA officers who will complete the online training program as soon as the Attorney General makes it available. They are Sugar Grove Village Administrator Brent Eichelberger and Kaneville Village Clerk Sandy Weiss.

Maple Park has yet to appoint a FOIA officer. Maple Park officials will discuss the issue at the Committee of the Whole meeting Monday, Dec. 21, Village President Kathy Curtis said.

The revised sunshine laws will require all FOIA officers to communicate closely with the state’s Public Access Counselor (PAC) to ensure that public bodies comply with FOIA and the Open Meetings Act.

Among other FOIA changes is that the public information requests will not have to be written on a village-specified form, and can be submitted in many different ways, including orally.

Buick said the new FOIA could cost municipalities more money than the previous law. Under the FOIA changes, a municipality must provide the first 50 pages of public information to a requestor free of charge, and can charge no more than 15 cents per additional page.

The new FOIA law also requires municipalities to provide public information electronically if requested, when it is available in that format; and, municipalities must respond to FOIA requests within five working days, compared to seven in the past.