In a recent Illinois Appellate Court decision, the Court held that a public body was in violation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) where the public body initially willfully ignored its obligation to respond to a FOIA request in a timely manner, even though the public body subsequently provided the requested records. In Roxana Community Unit School District et al. v. the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, several school districts, a fire protection district, and a hospital district made a FOIA request to the Illinois EPA for a pollution control facilities application submitted to the Illinois EPA. The application was significant to the public bodies because, if approved by the EPA, the applicant would benefit from preferential tax treatment to the detriment of the local taxing bodies. After receipt of the FOIA request, the EPA acknowledged receipt of the FOIA request but did not provide the records, seek an extension, or deny the request within the statutory time frame, which is five business days. Nearly three months later, the EPA finally provided the requested records. Later, the requesters made a FOIA request for additional records and the EPA again delayed its response, providing the records a month after the request.
The requesters sued, alleging that the EPA’s delayed responses violated the FOIA. The EPA countered arguing that it had no liability because it eventually provided the records to the requesters. The Appellate Court held that the EPA’s argument was “unpersuasive.” While the request for the records was now moot due to the EPA eventually providing the records, the requester’s other requests for relief (attorney fees and civil penalties leveled against the EPA) survived.
In addition to the FOIA violation, the Court also held that the EPA violated the Open Meetings Act when it: (1) improperly closed its meeting to consider the tax exemption request, which affected all citizens and should, according to the Court, have been considered in “the clear sunshine of public scrutiny”; and (2) restricted public participation to written filings instead of permitting individuals to address the board at the meeting.
These rulings emphasize that courts take seriously the duty of public bodies to comply with the FOIA and the OMA. Public bodies should make every effort to comply with FOIA requests in a timely manner and ensure that their meeting practices comply with the requirements of the OMA. If a public body does not comply with the requirements, or does so in a delayed manner, it may be subject to paying the other side’s attorneys’ fees and civil penalties under the FOIA and/or the OMA.