Since the dawn of democracy, governing bodies have wiggled their way through loopholes in open government laws to fit their own – if not their constituencies’ – interests.
In Illinois, those loopholes have been more black hole than pinhole thanks to one of the worst Freedom of Information Acts in the country.
Many of those loopholes should at least shrink thanks to reform-minded legislation that passed both the House and the Senate this week. Senate Bill 189 is awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature. We expect he will sign it, and we look forward to the day when the bill becomes law.
Among the many loopholes the new FOI bill addresses is this particularly egregious one: A government record that otherwise would be open to public inspection is exempt from disclosure if releasing it would constitute “a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
What constitutes “a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” largely has been up to each government agency to interpret. Which is to say, it’s whatever the agency in question wants it to mean.
We now know what the McHenry County College Board of Trustees and its attorney wanted it to mean – that there essentially doesn’t have to be anything personal in a public document to hide it under the exemption.
Until Thursday, the college had cited the personal privacy exemption in refusing to release its new contract with former college President Walt Packard. After nearly six years on the job, Packard “resigned” in February, citing personal reasons.
But the college board did a curious thing. It hired Packard as president emeritus through June 2010. It’s a position with no real duties or regular work hours. But it has an enormous salary – the same $188,564 a year plus benefits that he was making as president. Board members have refused to explain.
Citing FOIA, the Northwest Herald sought a copy of the new contract. But the college denied our request and a subsequent appeal until Thursday, exactly a week after the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in a similar case that public employee contracts are public record and could not be sealed based on the personal privacy exemption.
After the board voted unanimously to reverse itself and release its new contract with Packard (something we do thank the board for), we obtained a copy.
But the most interesting new information obtained from it is that there isn’t anything personal in it. Unless Packard’s middle initial can be considered personal, that is. It’s a standard employment contract, the main exception being the nice salary and near-zero responsibility. There’s nothing in it that would make anyone with common sense think that Packard’s personal privacy would be violated by releasing it.
It seems pretty clear to me that the college was in violation of the state’s Freedom of Information Act by initially denying us access. Under the current law, there’s not much that can be done about it. The new legislation assigns consequences, including fines for willfully violating the act. It also would require the college, or any government agency, to notify a public access counselor employed by the Attorney General’s Office that it was exempting a public record from a FOIA request for personal privacy reasons.
What also seems pretty clear to me is that the board sealed the contract because it wanted Packard and his compensation package to go away quietly. Packard didn’t so much resign as he was forced out by the board of trustees. Board attorney Joseph Perkoski said as much during the meeting.
What’s not clear is why Packard was forced out and why the board was not honest about the reason for his departure.
As for why taxpayers still are paying his hefty salary and benefit package, board president George Lowe said Thursday that the college was obligated to honor Packard’s old contract because there was not cause to terminate him.
Fine. But that’s further reason why taxpayers deserve an explanation for why he was pushed out as president, but still is earning a president’s salary.
• Dan McCaleb is Editor of the Northwest Herald. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.