Evanston aldermen voted this week to consider replacing City Clerk Devon Reid as the city’s Freedom of Information Act officer after a controversy arose over public release of confidential information.
The issue was raised by Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, who complained that in at least one instance the name of a sexual assault victim and in another case the name of an arrested juvenile had been posted on the Next Request website launched last year to handle FOIA requests.
Wilson also said Reid hadn’t immediately acted to remove the confidential information when he brought the issue to the clerk’s attention.
Reid says he did address the issue with the sexual assault victim and that the incident involving the juvenile was the widely reported case of Iain Bady, whose father brought him to a City Council meeting to speak publicly about his bicycle-related arrest.
The Next Request system, which now has been taken down temporarily at the direction of the aldermen, makes it possible for residents to make FOIA requests online, have the city’s responses delivered online and have those requests and responses visible to anyone.
That enhances government transparency, a stated goal of the city, but under the state’s FOIA law, government agencies are only required to disclose FOIA’d information to the person making the request.
Wilson said he was concerned that residents may not be aware that their requests are going to be made public, and even show up in Google searches.
“FOIAs should continue to be responded to,” Wilson said, “but responses should go to the person making the request — not to everybody in the world.”
But Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said, “We are in an age of transparency, and generally people should be able to access the information.”
On Wilson’s motion the aldermen voted 6-2 to discuss the issue of who should be the city’s FOIA officer and the Next Request system at the next Rules Committee meeting.
Reid argues that it’s an advantage to citizens to have an independent, elected official like him as the FOIA officer, rather than any city employee, who ultimately has to report to the city manager.