Over the past two days, the Tribune has unveiled a new series devoted to public transparency titled "Your Government in Secret." An article yesterday detailed the awful public records access in Illinois, which led Terry Mutchler to deem us "the worst state in ...
Over the past two days, the Tribune has unveiled a new series devoted to public transparency titled "Your Government in Secret." An article yesterday detailed the awful public records access in Illinois, which led Terry Mutchler to deem us "the worst state in the country when it comes to transparency and open records." Mutchler would know. As the public access counselor under Attorney General Lisa Madigan, she advocated on behalf of citizens, watchdogs, and journalists when Freedom of Information Act requests were turned down or ignored. Mutchler has since moved on to a similar job in Pennsylvania and the state is yet to hire a replacement.
Even as Madigan tries to restore the public access office and expand its authority, the Tribune diligently points out why enforcement is no substitute for overhauling FOIA laws:
Government records routinely turned over at the front counters in many other states are routinely denied here -- the result of a notoriously weak open records law, an unsympathetic political culture and an attitude of disdain among many public servants who consider documents their own. [...]
The state's Freedom of Information Act has more pages devoted to what records you can't get than what you can, from public officials' personnel files to memos in which they express opinions.
In a separate article, the Tribune also takes aim at the Daley administration's resistance to transparency. If you've been following our municipal coverage, this indefensible pattern of secrecy should come as no suprise. They recall unsuccessful efforts to learn more about the blue bag recycling program and the leasing of public assets, describing these government operations as "cloaked in secrecy." As a result, citizens remain largely in the dark about "how Daley really runs Chicago."
As an example, the article goes on to note the city's efforts to keep repeat-offender lists out of the hands of lawyers representing victims of police abuse. This is an issue we've written about extensively. The Tribune notes that the underlying policies leave public records officials in other states scratching their heads:
[D]isciplinary files of public employees are not open records under Illinois law, a policy that puzzles officials in other states where such documents are public.
Without seeing the files, "how else can the public evaluate whether a public agency is adequately investigating those claims?" said Laurie Beyer-Kropuenske, Minnesota's top public records official. "Doesn't the public have a right to know why the Police Department found all 100 complaints against Officer Friendly to be completely without merit?"
The Tribune deserves credit for calling out officials' half-hearted handling of FOIA requests and for providing a hand to frustrated citizens by opening an open records help desk.
Hopefully, they will go on to explore some of the most relevant recommendations that have been brought to the debate thus far. Last week, we highlighted the Chicago Justice Project's (CJP) ideas for bringing FOIA into the 21st century. There's no excuse for failing to keep public records and completed FOIA responses in an electronic format so they're available for future downloads. Although the General Aseembly is likely to pass some open-records reforms this year, meaningful new rules are what's really needed.