McCullom Lake saga another reason why gov't wants to gut FOIA

My Sunday story about the things it appears that McHenry County government doesn't want you to know regarding the alleged McCullom Lake brain cancer cluster may further explain why it's working behind the scenes to pull the fangs out of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

The story reveals just some of the data and information that the McHenry County Department of Health has chosen to downplay, spin or ignore, to paraphrase the accusation it levied against the Northwest Herald four years ago. In just one example I cite, the health department never released two reports from its epidemiologist that concluded that the department's practice of examing brain cancer rates by the village's ZIP code is scientifically "not appropriate in this case."

Northwest Herald investigative stories over the past 4 1/2 years have uncovered that the health department's "analysis" of the alleged cluster – which 33 lawsuits to date blame on air and groundwater pollution from the Rohm and Haas chemical plant in neighboring Ringwood – has no scientific value. Maybe I'll show my work in a later blog post, but for now, I'll link to the more important stories highlighting the many failures of the health department and county government here, here, here, here, here and here.

This airing of laundry buried in govermnent's closet may be why the County Board and other public bodies are paying lobbyists, with your tax dollars, to make it harder for journalists, bloggers and good-government advocates to get access to information.

Since 2007, neither health department officials nor what a Northwest Herald editorial charmingly called their "enablers" in county government have ever credibly challenged any of my stories on the McCullom Lake issue. (For the record, jumping up and down and screaming about my stories is not a credible challenge.)

I think this is one of the reasons why the County Board's lobbyist in Springfield is backing House Bill 3137 (just one of many anti-sunshine bills backed by our local governments), which would allow less-than-scrupulous FOIA officers to withhold just about anything.

The bill as now written (I blogged about its shortcomings here) would allow public bodies to exempt drafts of reports and presentations prepared by government staff. If House Bill 3137 becomes law, stories like the one in Sunday's paper would become very hard, if not impossible, to write. With this provision, all an official has to do is write "DRAFT" on any unreleased document that the government would like to keep that way.

Think that's unlikely? As I blogged about here and wrote in a Sunday analysis piece here, at least two municipal governments took extreme liberties with a new exemption aimed at reining in "vexatious" FOIA requesters. The exemption took effect last August, the village governments started abusing it weeks later, and the Attorney General was forced to intercede in January and close the new loophole.

Whenever government gets a new power, it always, always tries to find new, lively and fun ways to use it to the detriment of our liberties and our wallets. New exemptions to FOIA, the Open Meetings Act and other sunshine laws are no different.

Regardless of what side if any a reader takes on the McCullom Lake situation, my stories have raised questions, from what health department officials choose to ignore to revealing the private 2006 meeting they had with Rohm and Haas executives, who got to review what the department intended to show worried McCullom Lake residents.

As I blogged about here, a reasonable person can ask whether our tax dollars paid for a rather slipshod attempt to come to the rescue of a multi-billion-dollar chemical company that obviously can take care of itself in court. And considering that the judge hearing the first case ruled the work of the health department, the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention inadmissible at trial and "irrelevant" to health issues in McCullom Lake, the county wasn't much of a knight in shining armor for said chemical company.

Our local governments' desire to scale back our sunshine laws have absolutely nothing to do with saving money or relieving staff of unduly burdensome work. That goes double for a County Board that's sitting on a $47.5 million cash reserve that can fund almost seven months of government operations.

It's about their desire to make investigative stories like these go away.

Hence your local governments' clandestine war against FOIA to keep the public from getting access to information. If you can't muzzle a watchdog, blind it.

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

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