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FOIA Requests Overwhelm City Clerk’s Office

Many of the information requests reportedly come from only a handful of people. The workload is enough that the City Council authorized the hiring of an additional part-time employee.

A small number of individuals and entities are responsible for the 10 to 20 weekly Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that are overwhelming Evanston’s city clerk’s office, said City Clerk Rodney Greene at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting.

By state statute, the city clerk maintains city records, and because of this, Greene serves as one of two Evanston FOIA Officers. But the number of City of Evanston FOIA requests has grown steadily enough over the past three years that the City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to allow the city clerk to hire an extra part-time employee to help manage the overload.

The city received 527 FOIA requests last year, up from 337 in 2009, and Greene said he expects this year’s total to match or exceed 2011’s numbers. As of March 22, the city had 118 requests in 2012 — more than it had received during the same timeframe in any of the previous three years.

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Though Greene estimated that FOIA duties only take up a few hours every week, when information requests come in, they have to be forwarded to the correct department immediately. According to state law, all inquiries must be answered within five working days, unless the office asks for an extension, deems the requested information exempt or can prove that the task of gathering the data would be too burdensome.

Greene said he attributed the increase, in part, to a handful of people who he said regularly submit multiple FOIA requests to test the system.

“We do have repeat FOIAs coming in from three to four different requestors on a daily basis,” Greene said. “It’s the same person asking for various topics. They will ask for numerous information from the city.”

“Because we are to be transparent, everybody’s testing that transparency,” Greene continued. “They want to see exactly what they’re going to get when they ask for it, how long it’s going to take to get it and if it’s not what they want. …They’re testing it to the limit of, making sure they stay under the limit of becoming abusive. So they may [submit] five FOIA requests this month and then nothing for the next two months.”

Evanston Ald. Coleen Burrus (9th Ward) asked whether the government could be transparent by posting a list of the individuals who submitted FOIA requests.

“Since they’re asking for transparency on our end, can we do the same to let people know who is asking for all these requests?” Burrus asked. “You’re asking for additional funds, and a lot of that has to do with the FOIA requests, so we should probably let people know what entities are coming in and asking and using all of those resources.”

Ald. Jane Grover (7th Ward) said that she fully supported FOIA laws, but that the public also had to understand that requests come at a cost to governmental bodies.

Freedom of Information Act Requests can be submitted by mail or email. Information on how to submit a request can be found on the City of Evanston website.

Richard Schulte April 13, 2012 at 12:52 PM
Mr. Graham, interesting article. I'd be curious to know what information is being sought and what a FOIA looks like. While the names of the individuals requesting information cannot be revealed, is the information being requested a matter of public record? One way to discourage this sort of thing would be to charge a nominal fee, say $20 a request, sort of like a co-pay on health insurance. Government transparency is one thing, harrassment of government for some purpose is another thing. My uneducated guess is that the individuals doing this support some cause, such as "sanctuary city", and are checking to verify compliance.
Jordan Graham April 13, 2012 at 11:06 PM
Hi Mr. Schulte, Thanks for writing. Costs for FOIAs are based on the number of pages you get. The first 50 copies are free, and after that it is 15 cents per page. I can tell you from personal experience, that fee can add up quickly for requests that yield thousands of pages. Thankfully, digital record keeping is driving these costs down and making it easier for government bodies to respond to requests. I'll admit that I am not 100 percent sure on this, but I remember hearing somewhere that you can FOIA request all written FOIA requests to a government body. So, I believe that if you wanted to know what people were asking about, you could submit such a request. In fact, maybe I'll do that as a follow up to this piece. I'll check it out and keep you posted. Best, Jordan
Ima Voter April 14, 2012 at 07:07 PM
If our governmental bodies were transparent, and furnished what is afterall public information to the public, then the public wouldn't need to use FOIA to get the information we're entitled to. Why in the would you want to undercut this safeguard by limiting FOIA requests?
Jordan Graham April 14, 2012 at 07:17 PM
Hi Ima Voter, Thanks for writing. The city is not planning to limit FOIA request. In fact, by adding another employee, they will be able to handle more information requests. True, the aldermen did not seem pleased that people were potentially using FOIA to potentially test the system rather than actually seek out information, but there was no one at the meeting who suggested limiting requests. It would be against state law, anyhow. Best, Jordan

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