Earlier this year, the Public Access Counselor (PAC) issued an under-the-radar advisory opinion that could have an impact on responses to Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. According to the non-binding advisory opinion, bank account numbers for public bodies are not exempt from disclosure, or subject to redaction, in response to a FOIA request.
The Village of North Henderson received several FOIA requests for copies of the Village’s bank statements. The Village provided the statements, but redacted the account numbers without explanation. The citizens requesting the information filed a request for review with PAC, complaining that the Village failed to provide any basis for the redaction, but also arguing that there is no valid basis for redacting bank account numbers from public body bank statements.
The first question regarding the Village’s failure to provide an explanation or cite an exemption was straightforward. Section 9(a) of FOIA clearly requires that a public body provide any requester with written reasons for the denial of a request for public records, and a “detailed factual basis” for the exemption claimed. The Village provided no explanation to the requesters, and therefore violated FOIA.
The PAC went a step further, however, and held that even if the Village had provided an explanation, the redactions would be improper. According to the opinion, there is no valid exemption for bank account numbers of public bodies. Section 7(1)(b) of FOIA permits a public body to redact and withhold “private information” from any FOIA response, defined as “unique identifiers, including a person’s … personal financial information.” The PAC found that a public body’s financial information does not constitute “personal” financial information, and therefore, bank account numbers are not exempt from disclosure.
As mentioned above, the PAC’s advisory opinion is non-binding. However, public bodies, including school boards and municipalities, may wish to reevaluate their policy of redacting bank account numbers from FOIA request responses.