6/5/2013Illinois DOT Busted Over Red Light Camera Spreadsheet
Illinois Court of Appeals orders Illinois Department of Transportation to unlock red light camera spreadsheet.
The Illinois Department of Transportation's attempt to keep information about its red light camera program secret by locking an Excel spreadsheet has backfired. The state's second-highest court last week ruled the move violated the state's freedom of information laws and ordered the agency pay an anti-camera activist $12,561 in compensation.
Barnet Fagel works with the National Motorists Association and offers forensic video analysis to help vehicle owners challenge tickets they unfairly received. To help that effort, Fagel decided in January 2011 to request data on automated ticketing systems maintained by the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). The agency keeps a spreadsheet containing the permit status for every red light camera operating at an intersection under state jurisdiction. Fagel asked for the data in "an electronic version in Excel format."
IDOT responded by emailing a file that had been locked, preventing Fagel from sorting, filtering or otherwise manipulating the data like a normal spreadsheet. The locking also concealed metadata. IDOT claimed it locked the file "to protect the integrity of the material and not to withhold information in any way," but Fagel insisted the agency was obligated to provide the information in the format in which the agency normally keeps the records and that there is no statutory provision authorizing IDOT's action. Fagel was certain enough that he decided to take the matter to the state attorney general, where he lost the first round.
"FOIA does not ensure that a requester can obtain information in an electronic format that he or she can manipulate, but only that the requester will receive the information in an electronic format," the attorney general's public access counselor stated in a non-binding ruling in September 2011.
Fagel believed this ruling was incorrect, so he submitted a second FOIA request clearly asking for the same information in an unlocked Excel file and filed suit in court. IDOT denied the new request, but in April 2012 Cook County Circuit Judge Peter Flynn said IDOT has been wrong all along, and the Illinois Court of Appeals upheld this analysis last week.
"Our examination of the relevant statute shows that the plain legislative language was broad enough to require IDOT to produce an unlocked electronic copy of the Excel spreadsheet to Fagel," Justice Joy V. Cunningham wrote for the three-judge panel. "Fagel requested that the information be provided to him in 'Excel format,' which we find necessarily encompassed the production of the information in a manner that would allow Fagel to fully exercise the functions of the Excel program with regard to the document. As the circuit court correctly noted, the locked version of the Excel spreadsheet that IDOT furnished to Fagel resembled a 'picture' of an Excel spreadsheet, akin to a portable document format (PDF), rather than an actual Excel spreadsheet."
The court insisted that if there is a danger that the information in the unlocked spreadsheet can be manipulated or misused, it is up to the legislature, not the courts, to evaluate and address that problem.
"Our holding today is consistent with the purpose of FOIA, which is to promote transparency and accountability of all public bodies at all levels of government," Justice Cunningham concluded.
A copy of the ruling is available in a 150k PDF file at the source link below.