Keeping Freedom of Information (FOIA) in the Evanston City Clerk's Office

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This Tuesday, the 28th, Evanston City Council will propose the selection of three new FOIA officers -- meaning that instead of being processed by the elected, City Clerk's office, FOIA requests for Evanston Police Department, Legal, and Financial records will be handled internally.

The proposed change will put information that could potentially reveal unethical/illegal activity by city staff or elected officials, under the authority of an individual who either reports to elected officials or directly to the city manager.

This is a problem.

As the public, we should expect that the person in charge of public records requests is an elected official solely accountable to the public as an advocate for transparency.

There are been too many times where each of the proposed new, non-elected FOIA officers have tried to block the disclosure of information that should have been released to the public.

In these cases Clerk Reid’s office has been able to step in and ultimately got the information released.

Examples:

(1) Clerk Reid wrote to the office of the Illinois Attorney General after a Loyola law student was denied records of gang member identification criteria collected by the Evanston Police Departments neighborhood team. Resulting in the law department reversing their decision and providing nearly 800 pages of its gang member database going back to the 1990s with names and birthdays removed.

(2) A more recent case concerned redacted emails provided in response to a request for information about letters of intent for the new Robert Crown Community Center. Reid said the law department had attempted to improperly cite personal privacy as a reason to redact the names of businesses before he pointed it out and they relented.

(3) In another case in recent months, a member of the public was seeking the list of the city's 30 largest providers of sales tax revenue. The department head who supervises the employee who the mayor's proposal would appoint to "serve as the secondary FOIA officer" recommended the city deny the request. But the clerk stepped in and established the list of businesses was not exempt, just the dollar amounts of what they provide to the city.

Having a single, elected FOIA officer is the gold standard of transparency, and having an elected official who's willing to partner with the community to locate public records is a valuable arrangement that truly represents Evanston's progressive values.