A recent Chicago Tribune editorial, “The burden of transparency” asks a provocative question: does the unduly burdensome exemption in the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allow an unfair loophole for public bodies to avoid producing public records? The Tribune editorial calls upon lawmakers to remove the unduly burdensome provision from the Illinois law. The federal Freedom of Information Act and public access laws in many other states include similar provisions and so the questions raised in the editorial could be applicable across the country. But courts and lawmakers considering such challenges should keep in mind the serious countervailing interests of public bodies – and the public taxpayers who fund them – before taking drastic measures like removing unduly burdensome exemptions from public access laws.
The editorial was written against the backdrop of a recent Illinois lawsuit, For the Good of Illinois v. State of Illinois, Office of Comptroller, 13CH00257, which was filed in the Circuit Court of Cook County in early January. As explained in the complaint, For the Good of Illinois (FGI) operates a website, www.openthebooks.com, which is a searchable website that contains financial records from public bodies. According to the FGI website, the website includes “7 million lines of public employment data covering over 95% of Illinois public employment and $236 billion of public employment pay, pension and worker compensation claims.” The complaint indicates that that FGI obtained such information from, among other public bodies, 944 local school districts and 36 colleges and universities. (more…)