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New FOIA finds local supporters

McHenry County’s state House representatives are pledging to do what they can to ensure that a new and improved Illinois Freedom of Information Act becomes law.

The proposed rewrite, submitted in the House last week, significantly strengthens a state law that many Illinois journalists half-jokingly call the “Freedom from Information Act” because of taxing bodies’ ability to find reasons to withhold information. The changes, penned by Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office and other openness advocates, go today before a House committee for review.

That committee, the State Government Administration Committee, is chaired by state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo. He said Tuesday that he would fight any attempts to water down the new bill.

“This [FOIA] is a much different mindset,” Franks said. “Before, the exemptions became the rule, and now it’s not going to be that way.”

But opponents are lining up to challenge the bill, such as the Illinois Municipal League. The league has been in contact with Madigan’s office, calling the proposed changes and fines too cumbersome and claiming that they open up the possibility of identity theft.

“We’d rather really see a discussion on how to make the act more easily readable,” league general counsel Roger Huebner said. “If you don’t like the current act, you’ll grow to hate this one.”

The rewrite shortens the time that public bodies have to approve or deny a request from seven days to five, and bodies forfeit their right to cite exemptions should they miss that deadline. It also sets civil penalties of up to $1,000 for willingly violating the act and requires each public body to appoint an officer responsible for processing requests.

The new FOIA’s statement that public payrolls and funds are open information was received well by state Rep. Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, who is pushing legislation to create an online database of all state expenditures.

Tryon said openness regarding taxpayer-subsidized paychecks will cut down on corruption such as patronage, nepotism and ghost payrolling.

“I think those are all good government policies, especially at this time in history, when we’ve been through one of the most corrupt governor’s administrations we’ve ever seen,” Tryon said.

Rod Blagojevich’s office routinely failed to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, according to the final report of the House committee that investigated whether to impeach him. The winds changed under his successor, Gov. Pat Quinn, who ordered all state agencies last month to fully and quickly respond to FOIA requests.

But there are more than 7,000 units of government in Illinois, far more than in any other state. In many of them, Franks said, the onus is on the person asking for public information as to why they need it, rather than the government as to why it should be withheld.

About 75 percent of the complaints about FOIA compliance received by Madigan’s office in 2007 came from the public, with 10 percent coming from the news media and the remainder coming from government officials, according to her public access counselor’s annual report.

“It changes the whole focus – now we’re stating that openness is public policy,” Franks said. “Bodies would always sit on [requests], and force you to file a lawsuit. People don’t have the means or the wherewithal for that.”

The rewrite is sponsored by House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago. Currie also has submitted legislation allowing Lisa Madigan’s public access counselor to issue binding rather than advisory opinions regarding complaints received over public bodies’ compliance with the Freedom of Information and state Open Meetings acts.

But at least one local blogger who has locked horns with taxing bodies over public records is not optimistic that the new FOIA will survive.

Former state Rep. Cal Skinner, who blogs at www.mchenrycountyblog.com, applauded many of the proposed changes. But he said legislators will be under too much pressure from their local governments to keep them intact.

“Understand that most legislators represent local tax district officials,” Skinner said. “They do their will because they’re the ones who will campaign for them when no one else will.”

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