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Anti-transparency bills wrapped in fear and feigned concern for easier swallowing

Anyone who has ever had to give a dog a pill should recognize the trick that your politicians are using to attack your fundamental right to open records in a democratic society.

If you wrap that pill in bacon, it's in your dog's mouth faster than you can blink. If you're a politician wanting to help local governments keep public records private, you wrap your attack in common-sense exemptions that no logical person would oppose.

And through subtlety, you make people afraid of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act and you wrap it in that fear as well.

Cal Skinner over at McHenry County Blog wrote about my Monday blog post regarding House Bill 3137, which among other things would amend FOIA to allow governments to exempt drafts of reports and presentations prepared by government staff. It's one of a slew of bills that the McHenry County Board and 14 other counties, through their lobbying group paid for with your tax dollars, are trying to push through Springfield to curtail your right to know.

The example I cited was how draft reports contributed to the Northwest Herald's award-winning coverage of the county's repeated mishandling of the McCullom Lake brain cancer cluster – coverage, I'm sure, that county officials wouldn't mind going away.

I didn't include other exemptions proposed in the bill – date of birth, medical and health information of public employees – because such information in my opinion is already exempted under FOIA as "clearly unwarranted invasion[s] of personal privacy." As a matter of fact, medical records are plainly listed as private information, as are "unique identifiers."

I assumed that these provisions were not a big deal because they're already covered under FOIA. I owe Skinner and the person who commented on his post a debt of gratitude for showing that I assumed too much. And as my drill sergeant used to say (cleaned up for a G-rating), if you parse the word "assume," it makes something bad out of "u" and "me".

I'll bet anything that most, if not all, of the people who read about House Bill 3137 will only focus on the birth date and medical records exemptions that are already exempt. If I didn't know anything about FOIA, the idea that a journalist or business could FOIA my medical records would scare me stiff. I would then call my legislator and demand that they get the bill out of committee and pass it with all haste.

And that, my friends, is precisely the point. Planting a false fear that the evil liberal media might run your last colonoscopy on the front page makes you want to curtail open-government laws.

Besides draft reports, the bill also exempts names of applicants for public employment and applications for public employment. Again, I award points to Skinner for bringing up the county's recent problem with the background of a regional superintendent of schools candidate as to why keeping such information secret is a really bad idea.

Now let me meet Skinner's example, and raise him. How about the annoying tendency for people who scratch Illinois' politicians backs to end up with government jobs and the pensions and benefits that come with them? How about Gov. Pat Quinn giving state jobs to lame-duck lawmakers who helped him get that 67 percent income tax increase approved?

Lawmakers would love to keep applicants for government jobs – the ultimate patronage award that Illinois government can bestow, corruption's Medal of Honor – a secret until the last minute. In a state trying or at least pretending to care about cleaning up a system that has sent 1,000 public officials and businessmen to prison since 1970, including three or four governors depending on how you count, exempting this information would be a huge step backward.

And in this state, there isn't much room to step backward before we fall off of the cliff.

While I started this post off with a dog analogy, I'll end it with a cat analogy. I'm a lifelong cat owner who now owns two Siamese cats, a brother and sister named Fred and Ginger.

Ever try to give a cat a pill? Claws and fangs aside, wrapping the pill in something yummy doesn't work. A cat eats the tasty coating, and leaves the pill laying on the kitchen floor to the frustration of its owner.

Maybe we can learn something from our feline friends and do the same thing with some of these laws our state lawmakers are proposing. And outright spitting out all of what they're offering us is just as good.

Because this backlash from state and local lawmakers against our sunshine laws, and the fact that they're spending our taxpayer dollars to lobby for them, has been a very bitter pill to swallow.

Tomorrow, I'll list the anti-sunshine bills that your county, municipal and school lobbyists are pushing that I'm the most concerned about, and will neutralize any future argument that said bills are being backed in the name of your personal privacy.

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

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