(TNS) — Citing a smaller workforce due to the coronavirus outbreak, the city of Chicago, Ill., said it will automatically deny all Freedom of Information Act requests submitted by the public — effectively casting a shroud of secrecy over the inner workings of local government.
The state’s public records law is designed to give citizens access to records that detail how government works beyond what officials volunteer at news conferences and in other public settings. Experts say it’s a key tool for holding government officials accountable.
But Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration on Wednesday responded to a FOIA request with an automated denial that said, “Freedom of Information Act responses have been deemed a non-essential city operation and are being temporarily suspended until further notice,” raising concerns about the city’s handling of public documents.
Asked about the city’s new policy on FOIA responses during a conference call with reporters, Lightfoot said she was unaware that action had been taken, but acknowledged it was under consideration.
“We may have asked for additional time, but we certainly haven’t taken that action yet that I’m aware of,” Lightfoot said. “Obviously, responding to FOIA requests is something that we take very seriously. But given the bandwidth issues and as we’re ramping down essential services, that is certainly something that we’re looking at, but I don’t believe that we’ve taken any action yet.”
Informed that the administration had in fact denied requests under the new policy, Lightfoot said she would look into it.
“Obviously we’ve been looking at it because of the bandwidth issue as we pare down to essential services, but we will try to be as responsive to folks as possible,” Lightfoot said.
Ben Silver, an attorney with the Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst, said he’s sympathetic to local governments that likely will need more time to respond to public records requests due to all the turmoil being caused by coronavirus. But the city’s blanket denial is improper, he said.
“This is a time of grave uncertainty. People need to have trust in their government,” Silver said. “One of the reasons we have a Freedom of Information Act is people need to see what’s going on in their government. These are public records people are entitled to.”
Silver said the city should “immediately reconsider,” citing the likelihood that someone will sue the city.
In response to a public records request submitted by the Tribune, the mayor’s office released the following automatic denial:
“Due to the COVID19 National and State public health emergency, and the Governor’s issuance of a disaster proclamation, the City of Chicago is in the process of scaling back on workforce and non-essential City operations and duties,” the city said. “In doing so the City has determined that certain job functions must be suspended as non-essential. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) responses have been deemed a non-essential City operation and are being temporarily suspended until further notice.”
The Sun-Times and WBEZ-FM reported receiving the same response to FOIA requests from Lightfoot’s administration.
The Illinois attorney general’s office released an opinion to local governments about FOIA, saying, “Public bodies 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.
“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 attorney general’s office wrote. “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.”
At a separate news conference, Gov. J.B. Pritzker was asked if his office would stop complying with the state’s public records act, and he said no.
"We’ll continue to respond to FOIA requests,” Pritzker said. But he did ask for the media to have some patience due to the circumstances around the coronavirus.
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