PI Original Angela Caputo Thursday September 18th, 2008, 1:39pm

Is The Sun Setting On The AG's Public Access Office?

During Lisa Madigan's campaign to become Illinois' attorney general,
people took note when she pledged to throw back the shades and shed
light on the inner-workings of state, local, and county government. Her plan was simple: to hire a public access counselor who would
...

During Lisa Madigan's campaign to become Illinois' attorney general, people took note when she pledged to throw back the shades and shed light on the inner-workings of state, local, and county government. Her plan was simple: to hire a public access counselor who would help average citizens and those elected officials with an independent streak understand state laws and, when needed, ride public bodies until they disclosed credit card statements, closed session minutes, cell phone records, and the like.

Dropping the hammer on Illinois public officials who have earned a reputation for doing their bidding behind closed doors -- from single-school districts all the way up to the governor's office -- may have come at a cost, Madigan's deputy chief of staff Cara Smith said. The governor decided to trim AG's budget by more than any other state agency this year. "Do I think this is a coincidence that our budget was cut by 25 percent? Absolutely not," Smith added.

And the public access office has become a casualty of the cuts.

Last spring, Public Access Counselor Terry Mutchler called it quits, after landing a job to head up Pennsylvania's new open records office. With the attorney general's budget gutted, a hiring freeze has been imposed, which has left her position vacant for nearly four months.

Mutchler made a name for herself, and the office, by enforcing a simple principle: no one is above the state's public access laws. Even Blagojevich became a target, as she fired off letters and blasted him in the press for refusing to turn over records of federal subpoenas requested by the Better Government Association (BGA).

Southtown Star columnist Phil Kadner, who formerly chaired public access issues for the Chicago chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists, described why this type of counsel matters to the people of Illinois in a March 15, 2006 column:

[F]or the first time in state history, the average citizen has access to a lawyer. In years past, attorneys for school boards or municipalities would often issue a terse letter refusing taxpayers access to a government document and the citizen would be unable to respond without going to court.

Obviously, most folks don't have the time or money to fight government attorneys.

Government officials knew that. [...]

Whenever there were efforts to tighten loopholes in the Freedom of Information Act or the Open Meetings Act in years past, state legislators would respond that only the news media was interested in this sort of thing.

Those of us who were fielding phone calls from concerned citizens and elected officials knew better, but without official documentation the lawmakers refused to pay attention.

Even in the absence of a public access counselor, Madigan spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler maintains that all public access inquiries have been addressed "seamlessly." Two assistant attorneys are currently carrying out the work. And the office was spared in a round of 19 layoffs last week. "Everybody who needs help or wants help is getting it," Ziegler added.

Open government advocates like Kadner say that's just not so. "There's no one there who specializes in this kind of law," he said. "There are a lot of subtleties involved."

Keeping up with more than 1,300 open meetings and Freedom of Information Act cases each year -- mostly on behalf of everyday folks, as Mutchler reported in 2007 -- will no doubt be a challenge. But in the current climate of dysfunction in Springfield, BGA chief investigator Dan Sprehe said most open-government advocates are just grateful for whatever resources the office can provide.

"What becomes of the bureau, we'll wait and see," Sprehe said.

Image of Chicago's Thompson Center used under a Creative Commons license by Flickr user liz noise.

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