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Monday, March 14, 2022

PAC Finds Public Body in Violation of FOIA For Redacting "Goodbye Email"

The Public Access Counselor of the Attorney General's office (PAC) issued its fourth binding opinion of 2022 finding a public body in violation of FOIA when it redacted an email from a retiring police chief. PAC 22-004.

A news reporter submitted a FOIA request to a police department asking for a copy of an email that a police chief sent to all Village employees on his last day of employment. The Village initially denied the request in its entirety but later that day amended its response and disclosed a redacted copy of the email, citing section 7(1)(c) (invasion of personal privacy). The reporter then filed an appeal with the PAC, and the Village responded by providing an unredacted version to the PAC for review. The Village argued that it properly redacted portions of the email based on several arguments, including (1) that portions of the redacted email were not "public records" as they were merely a personal goodbye correspondence sent to colleagues and friends, which the Village argued constituted private affairs and not Village business; (2) release of the redacted portions of the email would be an invasion of personal privacy because it contained highly personal thoughts and feelings of the chief; and (3) the opinions expressed by the chief in the email were exempt under 7(1)(f) as they expressed the chief's frank opinions on Village policies and procedures. 

The PAC disagreed with the Village, and ordered it to release the unredacted email to the requester subject to permissible redactions of "private information" such as personal phone numbers and personal email addresses under 7(1)(b). In its opinion, the PAC determined that the chief was still employed at the time the letter was sent and the opinions expressed in the email constituted public records, not private affairs, and were not exempt under any of the cited exemptions. The PAC noted that the "deliberative process" exemption of 7(1)(f) only applies when predecisional opinions actually relate to the process by which policies are formulated, which the PAC found was not the case with the chief's email. 


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