Evanston aldermen Monday agreed to let Clerk Devon Reid continue to serve as the city’s Freedom of Information Act officer but deferred action on how widely responses to FOIA requests should be made available.

The action came after nearly two dozen residents supported Reid at the Rules Committee meeting. Many of the speakers identified themselves as members of Reclaim Evanston, an activist group that had backed Reid’s candidacy in last spring’s election.

Some aldermen had questionned Reid’s handling of the FOIA role after the clerk’s office posted FOIA data online in two instances that identified juveniles arrested by police and in one instance identified a sexual assault victim who’d requested a police report.

Reid has since apologized for those procedural errors.

Grant Farrar.

City Attorney Grant Farrar said state law only requires that FOIA’d information be provided to the person making the request. 

But, with limited exceptions, nothing in state law precludes a municipality from distributing such information more widely.

Reid said he agreed with suggestions that in the future police reports should only be disclosed to the person making the request, but he urged that responses to other requests should be made available to the general public.

Mayor Steve Hagerty objected, saying that people frequently reveal personal information — from lost jobs to home forclosures to complaints about neighbors — in emails they send to him.

He said under Reid’s proposal all that could be made public to anyone.

“I don’t think the public fully understands,” Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, added, that “when they write to us, that’s a public record. If you’re naming a neighbor, that might be made public. So this is a sensitive issue.”

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said she believes FOIA responses should just be released to the person requesting the information, because of the issue the mayor raised.

But Reid suggested that much statistical data produced in response to FOIA requests should be made widely available on the city’s Socrata open data portal.

And Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, agreed, saying that when there’s wide interest in such data, “staff shouldn’t have to respond to the same request 18 times.”

The aldermen voted to have Reid, working with Farrar, draft a new policy for how widely requested data should be distributed and present that to the City Council for its Nov. 13 meeting.

They also voted to bring the NextRequest system used to process FOIA requests back online as quickly as possible, but to not make data from it publicly available until the new policy on distributing the data is adopted.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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