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Friday, October 12, 2012

County's Property Tax Records Fee Violated FOIA

On October 5, 2012, the Fifth District Appellate Court held that a fee charged for production of real estate records violated Section 6 of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Sage Information Services v. Humm, 2012 IL App (5th) 110580 (October 5, 2012).

Sage Information Services filed a FOIA request to compel Franklin County to release “a copy, on CD or similar electronic media” of current real property assessment records for the entire county for the 2009-2010 tax year.  Upon receipt of plaintiff’s request, the county assessor refused to comply until Sage paid $0.05 for each of the 32,188 real estate records, or $1,609.40.  The county argued that the fee was authorized by Section 9-20 of the Property Tax Code, which allows a county assessor to charge a “reasonable fee” beyond actual costs.  Plaintiff refused to pay the requested amount and sued the county, alleging that the fee was a violation of FOIA.  The circuit court rejected plaintiff’s argument, holding that the fee was permitted by the Property Tax Code.

On appeal, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the circuit court decision and directed the county assessor to release the records electronically at no additional fee beyond the cost of producing the electronic media.  The court found that Section 6 of FOIA prohibits a fee for reproduction of electronic records in excess of the cost of the electronic medium, unless such a fee is expressly provided by another statute.  The court examined both FOIA and the Property Tax Code, ultimately holding that the language in FOIA allowing for cross-referencing to other statutes only exists for paper records. 

In the opinion, Justice Welch emphasized the importance of following expressed legislative intent and the public policy interest in prohibiting restraints on access to information in all but a few limited exceptions.  The court determined that the substantial fee demanded by the county constituted a restraint on access to information.  The court stated that it has a duty to liberally construe FOIA to allow interested citizens easy access to public records.

Post Authored by Erin Baker, Ancel Glink


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