A Daily Herald survey of 55 municipalities showed that the number of Freedom of Information Act requests received has increased in nearly all towns over the past few years that officials have been tracking the numbers. Between 2011 and 2013, 17 suburbs saw an increase of more than 25 percent. Towns including Aurora, Hampshire, Des Plaines and Prospect Heights saw the number of requests increase by more than 50 percent.
Municipal clerks and lawyers said that responding to these requests takes staff time and money away from other responsibilities to the point of being a burden, but First Amendment experts say it is worth the cost to increase transparency of government.
The requests aren’t all coming from investigative journalists looking to expose corruption, but mostly from regular citizens looking for police reports and information about their homes or their neighbors.
There are several reasons thrown out for the increase in requests: a change in the law in 2010, people seeking more information, businesses looking for background information for their proposals and developments, occasionally a personal vendetta.
I wonder if there aren’t three broader trends that are also contributing:
1. The Internet makes all sorts of information available. And yet, government doings are either hard to track down or obscured. When the rest of the world is opening up its data, is the government keeping up? (At the same time, I’ve heard local government officials suggest the public has more ways than ever to find out things including watching meetings and reading minutes online.)
2. Trust in institutions, such as local government, has been on the decline for several decades. People want to know what local government is doing because they don’t necessarily trust them to act in their interests.
3. With an economic downturn, people are more interested in knowing where their taxes are going. This is particularly true at the local level when many suburbanites want the paradox of higher property values (meaning their investment in housing pays off) but with lower property taxes and better local services. This also leads to a mentality that local government works for the people and should have no problem processing FOIA requests.
Given the time it can take to track down these requests, I’m sure this is something local governments are keeping their eyes on.