City Hall again processing record requests after issuing earlier automatic denials

Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office has urged public bodies and requesters to work together amid the coronavirus outbreak.

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City Hall

City Hall began to automatically deny requests for public records Wednesday as a “non-essential City operation” that would be unduly burdensome to fulfill amid the public health emergency caused by the spread of the coronavirus.

Sun-Times file photo

City Hall said it would continue to process requests for public records Wednesday amid the coronavirus outbreak after it earlier sent out automatic denials characterizing such requests as a “non-essential City operation” that would be unduly burdensome to fulfill.

The change in course came after the Chicago Sun-Times and other media outlets reported the automated responses that cited state law and directed the request to the state’s Public Access Counselor.

“The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) responses have been deemed a non-essential City operation and are being temporarily suspended until further notice,” the city’s automated response read. “As a result, your FOIA request is denied as the processing of your request during this statewide emergency declaration is unduly burdensome.”

During a conference call with reporters, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she wasn’t aware of the denials.

“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.”

When reporters told the mayor that automatic denials were, in fact, the city’s policy during the crisis, she said, “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.”

The Public Access Counselor, a branch of Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office, had already posted guidance online for public agencies dealing with such requests. It said in part, “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,” Raoul’s office also said. “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.”

Lightfoot suspended “nonessential” government services and canceled Wednesday’s City Council meeting as the city continues to grapple with the spread of the coronavirus.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office said FOIA requests were still being processed for Illinois government departments, but many have been delayed. In those cases, FOIA representatives are reaching out to let requesters know the requests might take longer.

Contributing: Tina Sfondeles

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