Six weeks after a rewrite of Illinois' open records law landed on Gov. Pat Quinn's desk, good government advocates are getting restless as an inexplicable gubernatorial "review" drags on. "Why is Quinn not signing it?" the Illinois Campaign for ...
Six weeks after a rewrite of Illinois' open records law landed on Gov. Pat Quinn's desk, good government advocates are getting restless as an inexplicable gubernatorial "review" drags on. "Why is Quinn not signing it?" the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform's David Morrison asked during a phone interview earlier today. "We're not sure."
Regular readers know that getting revisions to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) through the legislature was no easy feat. In May, the effort to rewrite of some of the nation's worst FOIA laws -- spearheaded by Attorney General Lisa Madigan herself -- was nearly sabotaged due to some last minute political maneuvering in the General Assembly.
While the "compromise" bill (SB 189) that ultimately emerged from the statehouse was obviously watered down, it did include an important provision that gives the public access counselor more power over compliance.
Now, even after the bill passed the legislature, public officials organized under the Illinois Municipal League (IML) have unexpectedly revived their campaign against the reforms. And they've got some help in their effort to kill the bill. On July 1, the Illinois State's Attorneys Association (ISAA) penned a letter to Quinn urging him to reject the rewrite and defend the local state's attorney's jurisdiction to enforce FOIA infractions as "criminal" acts. They argue that the new rules would infringe on privacy, rack up unnecessary attorney's fees, and create a workload too large for the Attorney General's office to handle.
Considering how little the state's attorneys have done to pressure public officials to make good on records requests, the move has Madigan's office miffed. "In the five years that we've had a public access counselor, not once has a state's attorney stepped up and said 'I'm going to enforce compliance,'" chief of staff Cara Smith tells us.
In an editorial over the weekend, the Rockford Register Star also criticized ISAA's argument and asked point-blank: "Our question, counselors: Where have you been?"
Meanwhile, the IML has taken its opposition (PDF) to the next level by suggesting that access to public records should be restricted because such information is often sought as "a political tool ... to harass and harangue public officials."
In a new blog post, the Chicago Justice Project's Tracy Siska not only debunks the IML's weak arguments, but calls out the group for resorting to "hyperbolic language" and fearmongering. Siska also argues that Quinn should consider SB 189 as only the first step toward creating 21st century FOIA laws:
Municipalities must be motivated to reform the way they operate and store information. Innovation of our government systems will be driven by responsiveness to fresh and progressive open records laws not through rewarding municipalities for maintaining antiquated systems that allow them to foil public inspection of their operations.
The bottom line is that citizens are already at a major disadvantage when it comes to accessing public records -- a key component of holding elected officials accountable. Additional delays will only put the public at risk of losing more ground. As Smith points out, "It's time to put our money where our mouth is in terms of reform."