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Our View: Keep the sun shining on public officials

State Journal Register

Friday, March 15, 2019  |  Editorial  |  Editorial Board

Ethics, Campaign Reform, Transparency (12a) , Open meetings (6a)

As we finish up Sunshine Week — the annual initiative to promote transparency in government — it’s a good time to remember this: Public information belongs to the people, not the officials charged with keeping that information.

 

Sunshine Week is dedicated to promoting open government and a time to discuss how vital it is to have access to public information. And while it’s something mainly championed by the media, it’s really a week for citizens.

 

The state’s Freedom of Information Act lays out what types of information you as a resident have the right to see. The state’s Open Meeting Act lays out how elected officials have to conduct the public’s business (generally speaking, it needs to be out in the open and not behind closed doors).

 

While we don’t want to paint all public officials with a wide brush, too many of them think information they oversee belongs to them. They are wrong. And if you’ve ever tried to get information from a public body, there’s a good chance you may have encountered some roadblocks in accessing what you are seeking.

 

The general presumption is, all information is public, but there are legitimate reasons for not sharing information. Private information, for instance, is exempt. You cannot ask for the Social Security numbers or medical records of public employees. Also exempt are records from law enforcement agencies that would interfere with a pending investigation or proceeding. Preliminary notes or drafts are also exempt, and so are business trade secrets or proprietary information that, if disclosed, could harm a person or business. Requests that are “unduly burdensome” also can be denied.

 

Yet too often, information the public has the right to is still withheld. And frankly, public agencies face few consequences by not releasing that information. So during Sunshine Week, it’s encouraging to note that legislation that would give more teeth to FOIA enforcement has been introduced in the General Assembly.

 

Senate Bill 1216 would ensure courts issue penalties for every FOIA violation. To issue a penalty right now, a court must find that a public body “willfully and intentionally” failed to comply with FOIA, according to the Better Government Association, a proponent of this legislation. Guess how often that happens? The legislation also would ensure courts issue penalties when a public body ignores a court order regarding a violation. Currently, it’s at the discretion of the court whether to issue one.

 

The goal here is not for public bodies to spend more money. It is for them to know they will unnecessarily cost taxpayers by not complying with FOIA laws. Penalties haven’t deterred some public bodies because they know it’s unlikely they will have to pay for their lack of transparency.

 

Unfortunately, the measure introduced by state Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, has seen little action. We hope that changes soon. And it’s not the only transparency-friendly item we hope to see the legislature approve this session. Attorney General Kwame Raoul has requested funding in the fiscal year 2020 budget for his office to hire an additional six lawyers, plus two support staff members, to beef up staffing in the Public Access Counselor’s office.

 

The PAC is the department in the attorney general’s office that helps decide disputes involving the state’s FOIA and OMA. Raoul in 2009 sponsored the legislation that created the PAC. Anyone who doubts the office is needed should read an October 2018 report by ProPublica and the Chicago Sun-Times that found even with the PAC, the public is often shut out from information that rightfully belongs to them.

 

That report found that the PAC’s staff struggles to get through the thousands of cases it has, often taking months — sometimes years — to resolve them. And when it does, the report found, it “seldom uses its full authority to order government agencies to comply with the laws. And in the rare cases when it does, the office’s orders are sometimes blown off. Violators face few consequences.”

 

That is unacceptable. Transparency at every level of government is paramount. People should know what their government is doing. Change needs to happen. Lawmakers like Cullerton and Raoul are offering good ideas that need to be implemented. The rest of the General Assembly and Gov. J.B. Pritzker need to follow their lead.