The state attorney general’s office says the City of Evanston improperly delayed responding to a request for city records under the Freedom of Information Act by claiming they were sought for a commercial purpose.
In a letter issued last week, Assistant Attorney General Steve Silverman concludes that the city had no legitimate basis for deciding that the request, from Howard Handler of the North Shore Barrington Association of Realtors, fell under the commercial purpose provision of the statute.
Governmental entitites in Illinois normally must respond to requests for records under the Freedom of Information Act within five working days, but can stretch that to 21 working days if the request is for a commercial purpose.
Handler in March requested records about off-campus housing for college students and reports regarding code violations at certain properties. The records were related to efforts by the city, still underway, to impose new licensing restrictions on rental dwelling units in Evanston.
The state law defines “commercial purpose” as “the use of any part of a public record or records, or information derived from public records, in any form for sale, resale, or solicitation or advertisement for sales or services.”
Handler said that NSBAR, a non-profit organization, had no intention of using the records for any such purpose and instead intended to disseminate information regarding “the health, safety, welfare or the legal rights of the general public.”
The city noted in response that Handler is a registered lobbyist for the Illinois Association of Realtors and claimed that because that group “promotes legislation and dispenses campaign contributions” that the request was clearly commercial in nature.
But Silverman said the attorney general’s public access bureau had previously determined that seeking records for lobbying purposes “is not a sufficient basis to characterize a request as having a commercial purpose.”
With no evidence that Handler intended to sell the records or use them to solicit or advertise for sales or services, Silverman concluded that the city incorrectly designated Handler’s request as having a commercial purpose and improperly extended the deadline for responding to the request.
The city did ultimately provide the requested records over a month after Handler first made his request.
Handler says the city has repeatedly designated requests for information about real property as commercial requests and says the practice appears to be “an orchestrated effort to delay and prevent the release of public information” especially when the requests raise concerns about practices within the city’s Community and Economic Development department.
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said the city has acknowledged receipt of the “advisory, non-binding opinion” from the state, but believes the city’s existing procedures are sufficient for processing FOIA requests.
Bobkiewicz complained that the city staff has spent over 100 hours this year processing “repeated and voluminous requests” from Handler for city records.
He said that of 11 inquiries received from the attorney general’s office over the past 18 months about the city’s handling of FOIA requests, the attorney general’s office has agreed with the city’s actions to withhold or redact records in six cases, and agreed in part in two others and one case is still pending.
Only in two cases, Bobkiewicz said, has the state issued a decision that the city misinterpreted Freedom of Information Act rules.