Appellate court affirms AG ruling that housing group's records subject to FOIA

By Elizabeth Alt | Apr 16, 2018

SPRINGFIELD — The Fourth District Appellate Court has affirmed a lower court's decision agreeing with an opinion issued by Attorney General Lisa Madigan that documents from a group founded to improve housing conditions in Danville are public record and fall under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

“The binding opinion issued by the Attorney General is considered a ‘final decision of an administrative agency, for purposes of administrative review under the Administrative Review Law,’” according to the ruling issued March 28. Justice Thomas Harris wrote the opinion, with Justice Lisa Holder White and Justice Craig DeArmond concurring.

In 2015, Danville resident and landlord Kevin Flynn requested documents from the city related to the Housing Task Force. The Housing Task Force was created in 2014 and was made up of community members and city officials. The objective of the organization was “to develop strategic goals and objectives to improve housing conditions within the community” after the city suffered a population loss, according to information in the ruling.

In his FOIA request, Flynn asked for records such as minutes from the task force’s meetings, notices of when meetings were to be held, correspondence and reports. The city denied Flynn’s request the same day he sent it, stating that the Housing Task Force was not a public body subject to the FOIA, so its records were not available to the public.

Flynn sought administrative review with Madigan, who found that the city violated the FOIA and ordered the city to provide Flynn with the information he requested. Madigan in her opinion confirmed that the Housing Task Force was organized by the city and used city resources during business hours and said, “it is clear that records relating to the activities of City officials and employees who convened the Housing Task Force and who continue to work on its objectives pertain to the transaction of public business of the City," the ruling said. 

Danville did not provide Flynn with the requested information and requested administrative review of Madigan’s decision with a circuit court, arguing that the Housing Task Force was not a public body subject to FOIA and so its records were not public records that they could provide. The circuit court affirmed Madigan's decision, and the city appealed.

The city argued that Madigan interpreted the FOIA too broadly, and the decision would mean any private group’s records could be subject to FOIA if it has any interaction with a public body, saying “any piece of paper inside city hall will qualify as a public record based solely upon its presence inside city hall," according to the court.

The appellate court rejected this argument, saying, “There is not an unrestricted right to examine all documents possessed by a public body. If a record possessed by a public body pertains to private information or falls under one of the other enumerated exemptions within section 7(1) of the Act, then its disclosure is not required by the Act.”

The court noted that Flynn submitted his request to the city, not the Housing Task Force, and “the City qualifies as a 'public body' under the Act.”

“We agree with the Attorney General that the requested records pertain to 'public business' as they appear to concern business or community interests and not private affairs,” Harris wrote.

The court noted the description of the Housing Task Force “expressly provides that the Housing Task Force’s recommendations are intended to set forth the City’s housing strategy for the 2015-20 planning period and guide the daily decisions of City officials. The City’s housing strategies and the daily decisions of City officials in such matters clearly pertain to public or community interests—not private affairs.”

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