City Hall automatically denying requests for public records, calling them ‘non-essential’

City Hall automatically denying requests for public records, calling them ‘non-essential’

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

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

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.

Requests from the Chicago Sun-Times directed to three city departments Wednesday each prompted identical, automatic responses denying the requests outright, citing state law and directing the requester 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,” it read. “As a result, your FOIA request is denied as the processing of your request during this statewide emergency declaration is unduly burdensome.”

A spokesman for Mayor Lori Lightfoot did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The automatic denials came from Lightfoot’s office, as well as the city law and public health departments.

The Public Access Counselor is a branch of Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office. The attorney general has 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,” it 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.”

The portion of state law cited in the city’s denial notes, in part, that “before invoking this exemption, the public body shall extend to the person making the request an opportunity to confer with it in an attempt to reduce the request to manageable proportions.”

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

The mayor said the services being suspended would be “nonessential government services that cannot be performed from home” by city employees.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office said FOIA requests are still being processed for Illinois’ departments, but many are being delayed. In those cases, FOIA representatives are reaching out to let them know the request for information may take longer.

Contributing: Tina Sfondeles

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