October 17, 2017
Aldermen unanimously decided Monday to allow city clerk Devon Reid to keep his jurisdiction over Freedom of Information Act requests, and to continue discussions on the type of information made public.
On Tuesday, City Council will reinstate Evanston’s NextRequest database, which stores public records online. However, until aldermen agree on revised FOIA guidelines, all requests will remain private, Reid told The Daily.
The decisions come after weeks of discussion by aldermen and an Oct. 5 Facebook post from Reid urging for further review of information. Council members first raised concerns over information made public in the FOIA database at a Sept. 25 meeting.
At the September meeting, Ald. Donald Wilson (4th) said the database had publicly disclosed the names of juvenile offenders and at least one survivor of sexual assault. Aldermen voted to make the database private and began a review of the city’s policies pertaining to the public release of requested information.
The September meeting also revealed that, since Reid stepped into his role as city clerk, Evanston has not had a formally designated FOIA officer. When the city drafted its 2014 FOIA policy, former city clerk Rodney Greene was appointed to the post by name, according to city documents.
On Monday, aldermen amended the code and specified that the job falls under the purview of the city clerk’s office, ensuring future clerks’ status as FOIA officers.
However, aldermen said they want to continue examining how and when requested information should be made public online.
Using NextRequest, city officials are able to fulfill FOIA requests electronically and release documents either directly to the requester or on a larger, searchable database.
Following questions about privacy, the city will adopt a new redaction process suggested by Reid. Evanston will begin using NextRequest’s embargo feature, which will add an increased redaction screening period — between five to 10 days in which the information is only accessible by the requester — to guarantee no sensitive details are posted online.
Additionally, certain FOIA requests, such as police and arrest reports, would not be made public on the database at all.
Mayor Steve Hagerty said he was wary of publicizing information partly because residents may be unaware that some correspondences with public officials immediately become part of the public record.
Hagerty gave hypothetical examples of requested emails — like ones in which people ask for jobs or complain about neighbors — that might unwittingly be shared.
Still, he said “the public ought to know who elected officials, as well as other public officials, are communicating with.”
Ald. Cicely Fleming (9th) expressed further concern about balancing requests and privacy.
“My overall concern is to make sure that in using NextRequest and being very transparent as a city is that we also balance that and don’t overshoot and lose protection of citizens,” Fleming said.
City Council also authorized the legal department to provide additional counsel on FOIA matters. Aldermen will review a new FOIA policy at the Nov. 13 Rules Committee meeting.