January 8th, 2019 1:44 PM
Updated: Jan. 9th, 2019 12:00 AM
If you want a police report about a robbery on your block or the permit history of a building in the village or practically any government document available to the public, you're going to first file a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
But the way those requests are processed at Oak Park Village Hall was quietly changed a few days before the Christmas break, prompting a letter-writing campaign by the organization Oak Park Call to Action, which maintains an active following on Facebook.
Representatives of the village government maintain that the change largely aims to make more efficient the method for managing FOIAs in the village and better secure the privacy of those who submit them.
But Village Clerk Vicki Scaman, whose office formerly served as the primary FOIA officer, tells a different story.
Under the old system, most FOIAs began and ended with the clerk's office: FOIAs were largely submitted through a form on the village's website; the clerk's office received the request and directed it to the proper department; the request was either filled or rejected; and the response was sent back to the clerk's office to disburse to the requestor. FOIA requests were frequently routed to the village's law department for review under the old system.
The system put in place late last year has requests entered directly into a computer system called Laserfiche and directed to the Village Attorney's Office for review.
While the change has been positioned as merely a technical change in the village's workflow, Scaman said cutting her office out of the process will mean more rejected FOIA requests.
She tells Wednesday Journal that dozens of times a year she advocates for the release of documents in cases where FOIA requests have already been denied. That independent oversight will be lost under the new system, she said. "It happens plenty," she said. "About 30 to 50 times a year I have to have that conversation (with department heads about rejected FOIAs)."
FOIA requests are rejected for a variety of reasons; the Oak Park Police Department, for example, rejects them, when the documents in question are part of an active investigation and the information is considered sensitive.
But some requests are rejected inappropriately.
Earlier this year, the Illinois Attorney General's Office overturned a rejected FOIA by Oak Parker Michael O'Malley, who requested traffic numbers on Washington and Jackson boulevards and Madison Street from a study by a village contractor related to a plan for reducing the number of lanes along the commercial corridor.
The village claimed that the study was exempt because it was in "preliminary draft form" but Public Access Counselor Sarah L. Pratt, in the Attorney General's Office, saw things differently, ordering the village to release the traffic information.
That's just one example of the village's effort to withhold information, according to Scaman.
Village Manager Cara Pavlicek said the FOIA change, which was not discussed publicly at length prior to the change, was prompted by a staff departure in the clerk's office in 2017. The Oak Park Board of Trustees voted to not rehire for that position and instead moved toward implementing the new technology based approach, Pavlicek said.
The board adopted the 2018 budget in 2017, and village staff began work on implementing the new system. Pavlicek said the FOIA change happened days before Christmas as a soft rollout when the village receives fewer FOIA requests.
Nowhere in the village code is it specified that the village clerk is designated as the primary FOIA officer, she said, adding that the village attorney has always played a role in reviewing FOIAs.
Trustees James Taglia and Deno Andrews have requested that the topic be discussed at a future board meeting to get more information about the new approach.
Andrews tells Wednesday Journal that he still has questions about the new system but added that "if the village clerk is cut out of the process, then that is something that we need to correct."
He said the technology based approach is necessary, though, to modernize the village's systems.
FOIA requests have increased dramatically over the last few years, and the change aims, in part, to help manage the increased number of requests. Scaman said in an email that the village received 648 FOIAs in 2016, 904 in 2017 and 1,335 in 2018. She said those numbers have gone up in part because she's done a better job at keeping track of them.
Several trustees, as well as Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, already appear to be in support of the new approach.
Abu-Taleb said in an interview that the new system is more efficient and better protects the privacy of those who have filed FOIA requests.
He said directing FOIAs to the law department makes sense because it means fewer village employees are handling the requests. "Having a professional reviewing the requests with a legal mindset is the right choice," he said.
Abu-Taleb said those opposing the new system are spreading misinformation about the new system and "creating confusion."
Trustee Andrea Button also voiced support for the change in a telephone interview, saying that it is inaccurate to suggest that the new system will mean "less transparency or the release of fewer records."
"There is no way, whether it's under the village attorney or the village clerk, that we can get around the law; the law is the law," she said.
One trustee, Simone Boutet, strongly opposed the change, citing the recent decision by the Illinois Attorney's Office on the Madison Street traffic count FOIA request. "There's no reason to take that duty away from (the clerk's Office) because she does a good job, and she's the right person to do this job," Boutet said.
Boutet said the change is "part of a continuing effort (by the village) to control information."
* This story was updated to remove reference to the federal Freedom of Information Act.