It's June 14th, so we are more than half way through 2016. Yet, the Public Access Counselor (PAC) of the Illinois Attorney General's office has only issued 3 binding opinions on OMA and FOIA complaints to-date. At this rate, we may see only 6 binding opinions in all of 2016. That compares to 15 binding opinions issued in 2015.
We have been critical on this blog about the PAC's own transparency in providing access to its opinions. While the binding opinions are posted on the Attorney General's website, the advisory opinions are not. Although these advisory opinions are not "law," they do provide useful guidance to public bodies in how the PAC office interprets FOIA and OMA. This is particularly important because the few binding opinions that are issued each year rarely deal with the day-to-day situations most commonly faced by public bodies in complying with these transparency laws. Instead, the binding opinions often highlight public bodies that fail to respond to FOIA - two of the three opinions this year dealt with public bodies that simply did not respond to FOIA. These situations (a complete failure to comply) are rare - readers of this blog already know that's not allowed. So how can these "few and far between" binding opinions assist public bodies in complying with these two transparency laws?
The real guidance on compliance with OMA and FOIA has generally come from the PAC's advisory opinions. For example, we reported on an advisory opinion from earlier this year that discussed a public body's public comment rule that required prior registration. In 2014, we wrote about the 35 advisory opinions interpreting the public comment rule some time ago. These opinions provide real guidance to public bodies.
According to a report filed by the Attorney General in March, the PAC received 4,770 requests for review in 2015. 4,381 of those were requests for review of FOIA actions, and 389 were requests for review of OMA actions. Out of all of the 4,770 requests for review, the PAC issued 15 binding opinions in 2015. So, what happened with the other 4,755 requests for review? Presumably, the PAC resolved most of these either through voluntary compliance or by issuing advisory opinions.
It's been 6 years since the state legislature created the PAC office to oversee and enforce transparency by public bodies throughout the state of Illinois. It's time for the PAC to take one very simple step to promote transparency in its own operations - post all advisory opinions on the Attorney General's website.
Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf