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An explanation behind the county's war on FOIA is welcome

We may finally get an explanation as to why certain aspects of our state's sunshine laws strain the finances and resources of a County Board that has amassed a $47 million reserve.

As I wrote in Sunday's newspaper, my stories chronicling local governments' clandestine war on public records laws came up at Thursday's meeting of the Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee. The committee met for the first time with Katy Lawrence, the new executive director of Metro Counties of Illinois, which lobbies in Springfield to represent the interests of the state's 15 largest counties.

As I have written and blogged about since August, Metro Counties is one of several local government lobbying groups pushing a slew of bills aimed at scaling back our state's Freedom of Information, Open Meetings and Public Notice acts, or opposing bills strengthening them. Your tax dollars are paying for the effort.

Several members of the committee, such as Nick Provenzano, R-McHenry, said Thursday that the county has to do a better job explaining to the public why they are backing such legislation, and explaining to the public why the sunshine provisions in question are "burdensome".

I'm all ears. I think the taxpayers of this county are owed an explanation as to why their tax dollars are being spent to fight their right to know.

I'm especially curious about the following three:

* Part of House Bill 3137, backed by Metro Counties, would allow governments to exempt outlines and drafts of statements and presentations of public officials.

Color me suspicious, but draft reports have been a key component of the Northwest Herald's investigative stories that have exposed the numerous shortcomings of the county's investigation into the McCullom Lake brain cancer cluster.

In 2007 I wrote an in-depth six-part investigative series on lawsuits – 33 as of today – alleging that air and groundwater contamination from the Rohm and Haas chemical plant in Ringwood caused a brain cancer cluster in and around McCullom Lake. Among the stories was a piece that debunked the "science" behind a 2006 study by the McHenry County Department of Health concluding that nothing was amiss.

Drafts of the health department's work, which I obtained through FOIA, were vital in helping prove the shoddy nature of the research. Besides debunking the epidemiology, the drafts helped prove that much of the department's early environmental analysis consisted of taking Rohm and Haas' work and slapping the "MCDH" logo on it. The drafts helped lead me to other documents the health department had long possessed, but decided that the public didn't need to know about, such as documents showing uncertainty about the accuracy of pollution maps, and documents showing that plant officials knew about the pollution a decade before reporting it.

Is the county's sponsorship of House Bill 3137 really about saving money? Hopefully the committee can share with us just how much it costs county staff each year to find and photocopy draft reports for FOIA requests.

* House Bill 1869, backed by Metro Counties, would allow governments to publish their meeting and taxation notices online rather than the local newspaper of record.

Undoubtedly it costs money to print public notices. But is this bill about saving taxpayers money, or trying to hit print media in the pocketbook to further strain resources and keep its prying eyes off of government?

Let's get an analysis of that cost from county officials. And then let's get an explanation, as I joked here, as to why it's supposedly easier and more convenient for us to bookmark and follow the websites of the dozen or so governments on our property tax bills than it is to pick up the newspaper.

While we're at it in this election year, an explanation is owed to the one American in three that don't use the Internet (according to a Department of Commerce report) as to why they're out of luck if they want to know when their governments meet or what they're meeting about. Ditto for the 60 percent of senior citizens who don't use the Internet, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center report. As a reminder to all 24 County Board members, 118 state representatives and 59 state senators up for election this year, seniors love to vote.

* Along a similar vein, Metro Counties and other groups are backing House Bill 1715, which would allow governments to deny FOIA requests if the information the requesters seek is online.

Undoubtedly, that measure if approved would save governments some money. Let's see a figure for how much, which like the cost of providing draft reports we can then compare to the $47 million reserve, how much in raises that the County Board plans to hand out to its staff next year, etc.

Again, the county owes an explanation to constituents without Internet access as to why their FOIAs don't matter.

***

The McCullom Lake issue is one of many that prove FOIA's power, and maybe why many governments appear to be working to curtail it.

Was there a logical reason why the health department, in one of its earlier drafts I obtained of its epidemiology report, took an unprofessional crack at "big-city lawyers promising residents millions of dollars" having the audacity to "raise the hopes of residents"?  Such a statement has absolutely no place in a legitimate scientific study. It speaks volumes.

A rational person could read that passage and my stories - which to this day neither the health department nor county government have credibly challenged - and question the health department's and county government's motives. Was their work a genuine attempt to address a public health emergency, or a political mission aimed at spending your taxpayer money to come to the rescue of a multi-billion-dollar chemical company that, with a string of court victories, clearly doesn't need to be rescued?

I argue that the same rational person could  look at the legislation that local governments are pushing to fight open-government laws and question whether this has anything at all to do with saving money or staff time.

I have to show my work when I write an investigative or enterprise piece. So I hope that the legislative committee isn't blowing smoke and will offer solid evidence as to why it's backing all of these bills aimed at our right to know.

And come to think of it, I think our municipal, school and township governments owe us explanations as to why they're also pushing the changes through the Illinois Municipal League, the Illinois Association of School Boards and Township Officials of Illinois.

Senior Writer Kevin Craver can be reached at kcraver@shawmedia.com.

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