Advocates: State needs more sunshine
BY JOE BIESK Mar 20, 2010
Updated: February 7, 2011 2:17PM
Open government in Illinois may have gotten a boost when the state's bulked-up Freedom of Information Act took effect in January 2010, but it's still far from perfect, according to some experts.
Because of changes to the law, the public and the working media now have a designated referee with binding authority to handle open records and meetings disputes. Still, only three months in, attempts to tone down the tougher law already have started in the General Assembly, and local government officials still are trying to adjust to the law's new teeth.
"While Illinois has improved its FOIA, it still has far more to go than most states," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "There are a lot of public officials that ignore the law with impunity."
Nationally, Florida is considered the leader in government transparency. Public officials who flout sunshine laws there face fines or jail time.
Illinois hasn't taken it that far.
Nevertheless, the Legislature last year approved an overhaul to the state's freedom of information law that shortened the time public bodies have to fulfill records requests and limited what agencies may charge for documents. The law also gave the state's public access counselor binding authority in disputes over open meetings and records.
The SouthtownStar, in recognition of national Sunshine Week, tested how local Southland governments measured up to the new law. Local governments and police departments ultimately all fulfilled the newspaper's requests for documents - although some required more than a little nudging.
Documents uncovered as part of the weeklong project uncovered a pattern of lavish personal spending - all on the taxpayers' dime - among high-ranking school officials in the area, many of whom are in charge of cash-strapped districts.
Still, the SouthtownStar was in contact with the attorney general's office multiple times in reporting the series. And there still are unresolved questions about the formats in which some jurisdictions provided documents to the newspaper.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan released a report last week that said her office had weighed in 273 times on open meetings or open records disputes and had been contacted by public bodies 394 times since the law took effect Jan. 1.
Establishing the public access counselor was a priority for years, said Beth Bennett, the Illinois Press Association's director of government relations. Illinois now has a valuable chain of command for appealing FOIA decisions that's set into state law and has made appeals less intimidating, Bennett said.
"It's a great process," Bennett said. "Generally speaking the rewrite really brought the act up to date."
Still, Illinois is viewed among the bottom 25 percent of states when it comes to government transparency, Dalglish said.
"There's no way the job is done in Illinois," said Dalglish, who supports fines or jail time for officials who knowingly break the law. "They've got a long way to go, and that's mainly because of the attitude public officials take in the Chicagoland area. They just ignore the rules."
Illinois residents will have to remain diligent if they don't want government transparency to fall backward.
Already a measure has cleared the state House this year that would exempt certain records pertaining to public employees from being released. .
SouthtownStar columnist Phil Kadner, who was part of the group that worked on Illinois' FOIA redo, said he thinks all government documents should be public. Kadner said that despite the law in place there "is no government transparency in Illinois."
"Average people have to let the government know that the government's business is the public's business," Kadner said, "not the private business of state employees."