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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Assessor Ordered to Release Assessment Records to Tribune

The Tribune filed a FOIA request with the Cook County Assessor's Office asking for records relating to the valuation of residential, commercial, and industrial property in Cook County for purposes of taxation. Specifically, the Tribune asked the assessor to produce the spreadsheets used in the assessment of commercial and industrial properties and also that it produce residential property valuation reports. The assessor’s office denied the FOIA request, citing the exemption under 7(1)(f) of FOIA. The assessor's office argued that the records were subject to the "deliberative process" exemption under FOIA. 

The trial court ruled in favor of the Tribune, finding that the requested documents “do not in any way reveal the subjective personal position or opinion of any individual in the [Assessor’s Office]” such that the preliminary records exemption would apply. The trial court further found that none of the documents revealed “any debate” or “deliberation,” but instead found that the documents “contain factual information and the results of the [Assessor’s Office’s] valuation which are not covered under the deliberative privilege.”

The assessor appealed, and the appellate court affirmed its ruling in Tribune v. Cook County Assessor's Office, 2018 IL App (1st) 170455. The appellate court went through the analysis of the "deliberative process" exemption. First, the court determined that the records were final, and not preliminary. Next, the court held that the records are not ones in which opinions are expressed or policies are actions are formulated - instead, the court found that the requested records were factual in nature, and consist of the results of the assessment process. The court stated the standard for applying the "deliberative process" exception as follows:
In order to qualify for the deliberative process exemption, a document must be both predecisional in the sense that it is actually antecedent to the adoption of an agency policy, and deliberative in the sense that it is actually related to the process by which policies are formulated....The policy reason for the deliberative process exemption is to encourage candid debates within agencies. The government is entitled to withhold documents that reflect the agency’s give-and-take leading up to its final decisions.
The court further stated that "[p]urely factual material must be disclosed under FOIA once a final decision has been made, unless the factual material is inextricably intertwined with the predecisional and deliberative discussions." Because the court found that the information requested by the Tribune is critical for the public to understand how they are being taxed, the court ordered the assessor to release the requested records to the Tribune. The court also upheld the trial court's award of the Tribune's attorneys' fees.


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