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With FOIA, a slow climb

When it comes to public information, it’s easier to change the law than people’s attitudes.

Changes to Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act that took effect in 2010 have improved citizens’ access to information about the governments that serve them.

But there’s much work yet to be done in unraveling the culture of secrecy that persists among some public servants.

At McHenry County College, a Northwest Herald request for salary information on recently retired educators resulted in a runaround that lasted weeks.

Another request to the Upper Illinois River Valley Development Authority seeking an application by the group that wants to build a massive sports complex near the intersection of Routes 47 and 176 in Lakewood netted documents with everything but words such as prepositions and articles blacked out.

At least the new law takes the appeals process out of the hands of the local governments that deny open records requests in the first place. Instead, Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s public access office makes a determination.

The new regulations also require the officials to receive authorization from Madigan’s office to deny requests based on vague exemptions for personal privacy and preliminary drafts. Almost two-thirds of the 5,200 contacts Madigan’s office had were regarding those exemptions in 2010.

Regrettably, a cadre of people in the public sector continue to believe that government ought to keep secrets from those who fund its operations. Others simply don’t understand the law, and misguidedly choose to err on the side of keeping secrets.

Transparent government is good government. Any citizen, regardless of station or sophistication, should have easy access to public records should they request them. Unfortunately, Illinois still has a hangover from the days of toothless rules on the public’s right to know. The only cure will be time.

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