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Senate passes FOIA changes

Another bill to roll back improvements in the state’s new Freedom of Information Act is headed to Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk after clearing the state Senate on Thursday.

Senate members voted, 45-9 with one voting present, to approve House Bill 5154, which exempts the performance evaluations of all public employees from disclosure.

The bill is the latest to chip away at the state’s much-improved FOIA since it took effect Jan. 1.

Among those voting yes was state Sen. Pam Althoff, R-Mc­Henry, who had voted against it last week in the Senate Labor Committee, of which she is a member.

Althoff had told the Northwest Herald on Monday that she preferred talking out concerns over the new bill rather than passing numerous bills to erode FOIA’s intent.

Althoff could not be reached for comment Thursday.

McHenry County’s other senator, Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington, voted against the bill. All three of McHenry County’s representatives in the House – Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, Jack Franks, D-Marengo, and Mark Beaubien, R-Wauconda – voted against it, but it passed last month, 70-39.

Supporters of the bill, such as unions representing public employees, say that evaluations will become worthless if made public, and will contribute to hostile work environments because employees would be able to FOIA one another’s evaluations.

House Bill 5154 is one of at least seven aimed at weakening the new FOIA, not counting two already signed into law by Quinn. It expands on an exemption approved by the General Assembly weeks after the new FOIA took effect, which exempted performance evaluations of teachers and school administrators so Illinois could compete for federal Race to the Top education funding.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, with the help of public watchdog and news media groups, drafted a new FOIA last year to replace one that critics long have accused of being weak and easy to abuse. The new law gives Madigan’s office power to enforce the act, shortens the response time for FOIA requests from seven days to five, tightens the exemptions most often abused by public bodies, and for the first time imposes penalties for violating it.

The parade of bills aimed at scaling back FOIA is an about-face for lawmakers, who last year approved the FOIA with only one opposing vote after the arrest, impeachment and indictment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Pending legislation aimed at the new FOIA include a bill to allow public bodies to charge higher fees by eliminating the new limit of 15 cents a page – the old FOIA had no limit. Another bill would eliminate the requirement that courts award attorney’s fees to citizens who prevail in court over illegally-withheld information. Two other bills would allow public bodies to deny records if they pertain to any issue “under investigation,” even if they are not the investigating agency.

The Illinois Press Association, which helped draft the new FOIA, is dismayed by the legislation, general counsel Don Craven said. The Northwest Herald is a member of the association.

“We knew there would be this many attempts – we had hoped that they’d let the ink dry on the new FOIA bill before they started changing it,” Craven said.

Lawmakers also have approved a law that exempts from FOIA a new state database of burial plots created in the wake of the Burr Oak Cemetery scandal. The Senate is soon expected to approve a bill creating a review team to investigate juvenile deaths in state custody, which also exempts the team from both FOIA and the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

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Note to readers: “No More Excuses” is a yearlong series on the public’s right to know in Illinois.

What it means

The state Senate on Thursday approved House Bill 5154, which exempts the personnel evaluations of all public employees from release under the new Illinois Freedom of Information Act. It is the latest in a series of bills aimed at weakening the new open-records law, which took effect Jan. 1.

The bill, which already has passed the House, now goes to Gov. Pat Quinn to be signed into law.

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