Recently, the Illinois Attorney General issued its eighth Public Access Counselor opinion of 2016. At issue was whether a municipality violated the Freedom of Information Act by improperly denying a request as unduly burdensome.

In July, an FOIA request was submitted that sought digital copies of emails between the City Manager and a private firm that specializes in urban planning, architecture, and destination consulting. The request sought emails from June 1 through July 1, 2016. In sum, the request sought 50 emails and various attachments, totaling 174 pages. The City’s FOIA Officer responded to the request, stating that the request was “unduly burdensome” and that “[e]ach individual page would need to be retrieved by our IT personnel and reviewed by the FOIA Officer to determine if such information is exempt under 5 ILCS 140/7 in whole or in part, and redactions may be necessary.” The City continued by asking that the FOIA request be narrowed.

After a Request for Review was submitted to the Public Access Bureau, the City responded that “[r]equiring the FOIA Officer to review approximately 174 pages of documents burdens the operations of the City because the FOIA Officer also has duties as a City Clerk and Administrative Coordinator.”

In concluding that the City violated FOIA, the Attorney General employed a “balancing test to determine whether the public interest in disclosure of the requested records outweighs the burden of compliance on the public body under section 3(g).” The Attorney General ultimately concluded that the City “did not demonstrate a clear and convincing basis for its assertion that requiring the IT employee and the FOIA officer to devote several hours to reviewing the pertinent records would so burden its operations as to outweigh the public interest in the disclosure of those records.” In finding the public interest outweighed the City’s burden, the Public Access Counselor relied on a provision at the beginning of the Freedom of Information Act which states “compliance with the requirements of this Act is a primary duty of public bodies to the people of this State[.]” 5 ILCS 140/1.

This opinion reinforces the principle that municipalities should express caution whenever denying a FOIA request for being unduly burdensome.


Author: Jacob D. Caudill