By John Biemer
July 26, 2004
Most municipal Web sites in Cook and DuPage Counties do not offer substantive or instructive information about the Freedom of Information Act and thus fail to alert citizens of a crucial checkpoint intended to enhance government accountability, according to a watchdog group.
The federal FOIA protects citizens' access to certain information about government workings as a safeguard against corruption. By filing FOIA requests, citizens are guaranteed access to information such as municipal meeting minutes or government workers' salaries.
The survey, conducted by the Elmhurst-based Citizen Advocacy Center, looked at all 133 municipalities in Cook County and all 37 municipalities in DuPage, as well as the counties themselves. Ninety-seven of the Cook municipalities maintain Web sites, and all but two do in DuPage.
The survey found, however, that 80 percent of the DuPage municipalities' Web sites and 82.5 percent of the Cook municipalities' Web sites make no mention of FOIA at all or refer to the act only by name. A few have one paragraph or less explaining FOIA, and only 5 percent have substantive information posted about it, the study found.
Many of the sites include downloadable FOIA request forms, but by not providing minimal information about the act's intent and purpose, the municipalities fail to inform people what it is and how to exercise their rights, the survey concludes.
"It might be an oversight that [municipalities] don't have the informational aspect," said Terry Pastika, Citizen Advocacy Center executive director. "I hope it's not intentionally withholding information for the public sector so they don't request information."
Among those not including FOIA information or forms on their sites are the two county governments, Cook and DuPage–the two largest counties in the state.
For the last year and a half, the DuPage County Board has been working to expand its Web offerings and soon will include FOIA information and forms, said board member James Healy (R-Naperville), chairman of the board's Technology Committee.
"All that stuff should be online, I would hope, by the end of the year," Healy said. "The whole nine yards."
John Gibson, a spokesman for Cook County Board President John Stroger, said a downloadable FOIA request form and FOIA information would be on the county's site in the "near future."
A handful of municipalities' Web sites were singled out for providing helpful FOIA information and request forms: Schaumburg, Lombard, Lisle, Calumet City, Morton Grove and Winnetka.
The advocacy center recommended that the Illinois FOIAbe amended to accommodate electronic means of communication, mandating that each municipality maintain a Web site with extensive information about the act.
© 2004 Chicago Tribune