You’re the power source to light up government
Phil Kadner email@example.com | (708) 633-6787 March 12, 2011 12:10AM
Updated: November 24, 2011 3:34AM
I resent the fact that people have to ask their government in writing for public information.
Almost every document these days is stored in a computer.
But if you want a copy of a school superintendent’s contract, for example, you’ll be asked to file a request in writing with school officials that includes your name and home address.
That’s not the law in Illinois. It doesn’t require a written form to be filed unless the government entity is going to turn you down and you’re going to have to file an appeal.
The only real purpose for making people file in writing, in person or via e-mail is, as far as I can tell, intimidation. Government officials want you to know that they know who you are and where they can find you.
They also want an early warning system, just in case someone may be looking into something that’s going to embarrass a public official.
Government agencies in this state can’t pick and choose what individuals they can release information to, so a name and address shouldn’t matter.
A few years back, when I was involved in drafting the new Illinois Freedom of Information Act, it struck me how the burden on obtaining information from the government kept falling on the individual citizen.
That’s wrong. The burden should be on the government to release information that belongs to you, the taxpayer.
That means every public contract should be available on the Internet. That means when you click on a Web site for a library district, school district or municipality, there should be a link to a site for that entity’s budget.
You want to know what’s been going on at board meetings? There should be a link to an audio or video of every meeting for the past year on every one of their Web sites.
Some governments already do this. But most of them do not.
Some towns will make you file an information request for meeting minutes. And when you get those minutes, chances are you won’t see any discussion in detail about any item that was on the agenda at that meeting.
As far as governments are concerned, the less information you, the taxpayers have, the better.
That’s wrong. These people work for us. It is our government, not theirs.
In every municipal building or school district, there should be a computer available to the public to download public documents.
“We don’t have the space,” they will tell you. “We don’t have the money for a computer.”
Well, then make it available at the public library. They have computers. They have the space.
There are always excuses aplenty for not making information available.
It should work the other way. Everyone employed by the public ought to be looking for more ways to make more information available.
Unfortunately, too often citizens don’t understand the importance of keeping information public.
The recent controversy in Illinois over firearm owner’s identification (FOID) cards is a good case in point. Gun owners don’t want people to know who they are. I understand that.
But the state police are supposed to conduct criminal background checks on FOID-card applicants, and there’s no way to do that without checking the names of the people who apply.
School superintendents, principals and teachers didn’t want their personnel performance evaluations made public, so they screamed and the Legislature made them exempt from the freedom of information law.
Then police officers and firefighters wanted an exemption, as well. And all the public employee unions joined in.
Now, the new freedom of information law has a gaping hole in it.
And every time a new issue arises, a new group says it wants to keep its information private, and that will continue until the law is chock full of loopholes and pretty much useless.
Unless you stand up and say, “We have a right to know what our government is doing”
People tend to think that the Freedom of Information Act is used only by the news media.
But in 2009, the Illinois attorney general’s public access counselor reported that it handled 1,298 FOIA cases — 962 were complaints from members of the public, 276 were from government officials and 60 were from the news media.
This is Sunshine Week in Illinois, an attempt to create an awareness among citizens of the need to shine a bright light into the dark corners of government.
What’s not said often enough is that you are the power source for that light. You have to stand up and demand that government be accountable.
The powers of darkness are forever vigilant. And they will use every penny of your tax money to keep their secrets.