City of DeKalb is misusing its new FOIA toy

I told you a couple months ago that DeKalb’s problems are remedial, and I really mean it. They do not have the slightest idea how to deliver a good customer experience to the public.

Their latest trick is the new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) “system.” The press release is here.

The web-based FOIA software system allows users to register for an account, submit FOIA requests, and track progress of FOIA requests from submittal to completion. The system also allows users to browse all FOIA requests previously submitted to the City, along with the published responses and all responsive records.

It actually sounds like a good option, assuming the system works and that a person is both willing and able to create and maintain an account. The trouble is, in real life the city is not treating it as an option, but rather trying to force requesters to use it. They have eliminated information about alternatives from the website. Also, I have talked to two people so far whom city staff have called up and tried to bully into using the “system,” rather than do business their preferred way, which is email.

Bad form, DeKalb. Also wrong strictly from the FOIA standpoint.

Here are some FAQs about submission of FOIA requests that come from the Illinois Attorney General’s website:

Can a public body require that a FOIA request must be submitted on a certain form or in a certain format?
No. Public bodies can require that FOIA requests be submitted in writing, but they must accept requests by mail, personal delivery, fax, e-mail, or other means available. While public bodies may offer a form for FOIA requests, they cannot require that you use a specific form to make your request.

City of DeKalb has eliminated the FOIA email address, but that doesn’t make it okay to refuse FOIA requests via email, because the city still has email service and conducts other city business via email. In other words, it is a means available for submitting FOIA requests and receiving responses.

To whom do I submit a FOIA request?
FOIA requests should be submitted to the public body’s designated FOIA officer. Every public body must prominently display at its office and make available certain information, including the name(s) of its FOIA officer(s). In addition, the public body must display and make available:
 Information on how to submit a FOIA; and
 A brief description of the office, including its purpose, budget and number of employees.
Any public body that has a website must also post this information on that website.

The city has eliminated all information from its website “FOIA Center” that describes any other means of submitting requests besides the “system.” Additionally, it does not name the FOIA officer, nor display the office description. These are violations of FOIA.

How do I know who within a public body should receive my FOIA request?
Each public body must prominent display and make available upon request a directory designating the FOIA officer(s) for that body and the address where FOIA requests should be sent. This information must also be posted on the public body’s website, if it has one.

Again, there is no “prominent display” on the city’s website as to who the current FOIA officer is, or where requests should be sent. (***Added 5/11: The city has also apparently removed the FOIA officer from the staff directory.***)

Can I request the documents in electronic form?
Yes, and the public body must provide you those electronic documents in your requested format, if that is feasible for the public body. If that format is not available to the public body, they must provide the documents in the electronic format in which they are kept or in paper, at the option of the requester.

I always receive responses to my requests via email and in PDF, and FOIA says we have that right.

But even if we didn’t have the right, the elimination of options for interacting with our local government is a couple of steps backward, especially when “business friendliness” is a stated goal.