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Stop the presses: State lawmakers filing pro-transparency bills

If you're a public official who overtly or covertly hates open government and transparency, save yourself a lot of agony and do not read this blog post.

As you'll read in a story I wrote for Sunday's newspaper, our local legislators in Springfield have become a lot friendlier toward strengthening our sunshine laws.

I tracked down a number of bills, actually a lot of bills, filed by General Assembly members that are aimed at improving the Freedom of Information Act, Open Meetings Act and other open-government legislation.

This is a profound about-face compared to past years – usually it's this time of year that I write blog posts and stories about all the efforts by state lawmakers to chip away at right-to-know legislation, egged on and cheered by local government lobbying groups who are paid by our taxpayer dollars to work against us.

And those lobbying groups themselves will be subject to FOIA and the Open Meetings Act should a few legislators have their way.

I have no idea who slipped what into the drinking water in Springfield, but I like it. Now if only someone would figure out a formula to get them to fix the pension system, we'd be set.

As an aside, yes, I'm aware that this story and blog post come on the heels of my story that lists inane bills lawmakers are filing while Rome burns over the pension debt. But in my opinion, greater transparency in the past could have lessened the present crisis. After all, if governments had to hold public hearings to give employee raises greater than 6 percent – as one bill below attempts – there likely would have been far fewer of those pension-boosting, end-of-career golden parachutes that have contributed mightily to today's unfunded liability.

Because there is no way I can fit all of these bills into my print story, I list them all here, complete with links and bill numbers:

• LOBBYING TRANSPARENCY:House Bill 943, filed by Rep. Sam Yingling, D-Hainesville, would make all associations of local governments and not-for-profit corporations with local governments as members subject to FOIA. A companion bill, Senate Bill 1692, filed by Sen. Pam Althoff, R-McHenry, would make such entities subject to the Open Meetings Act as well.

In short, lobbying groups like the Illinois Municipal League, the Illinois Association of School Boards, and groups such as the McHenry County Economic Development Corp., would be subject to sunshine laws.

This could be a big reform if it passes.

First of all, government lobbying groups are almost entirely funded though membership dues that come from our tax revenue, and they are exempt from our sunshine laws. Secondly, many of these groups spend your tax money to not only fight your right to know, but also to fight efforts to lower your tax burden.

Last but not least, county taxpayers foot the bill for almost half of the MCEDC's budget. Efforts each year by a handful of McHenry County Board members to lower that amount, or question it, are all but dismissed as having a secret agenda to advance world communism. So the logic in this case is, if we're paying the MCEDC's freight and the County Board has only two its 18 board of directors seats, maybe it should be subject to sunshine laws.

(In the name of full disclosure, Shaw Media holds a seat on the board of directors as well.)

• COLLECTIVE BARGAINING: A number of transparency bills have been filed regarding negotiations with public-sector unions.

House Bill 182, filed by Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, repeals the exemption in the Open Meetings Act and related labor laws to hold collective bargaining sessions behind closed doors. House Bill 2233, filed by Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, does the same and also deletes the exemption for discussing salary schedules for classes of employees.

House Bill 3310, also filed by Ives, eliminates the exemption under FOIA for records related to collective bargaining.

In fairness, there are two schools of thought when it comes to these bills. You can look at them as an effort to put more sunshine into a process that very much impacts those gigantic property tax bills of ours – and has resulted in quite an upswing of strikes over the past year – or you can look at it as a Republican attempt to stick it to public-sector unions that overwhelmingly contribute money and volunteers to the other side.

• DRAFTS:House Bill 3311, filed by Rep. Joanne D. Osmond, R-Gurnee, eliminates the FOIA exemption that allows public bodies to withhold preliminary drafts of reports and other records in which opinions are expressed or policies developed.

This, too, would be a victory for open government.

Drafts of reports came in very handy in my stories that exposed just how flimsy the McHenry County Department of Health's "research" was regarding the McCullom Lake brain cancer scare.

McHenry County College used the exemption in 2007 to withhold for eight months a feasibility study regarding building a minor-league baseball stadium to finance $32 million in bonds to build a health and wellness center. When the college finally relented and released a heavily-redacted version, it turned out that the stadium would run in the red for four of its first five years.

The college recently cited the draft exemption in a FOIA denial to local activist Jane Collins regarding the ongoing proposal to fund college expansion through a health and fitness center. Actually, the college denied Collins' request for particular records because it says they don't exist, but said if they did, they would be exempt under the draft exemption (hat tip to McHenry County Blog).

Eliminating this exemption would rid MCC, one of the county's poster children for secrecy, of the main tools the college would have in keeping feasibility studies for this latest project from the public. And again, to save us all from a patronizing guest column, I cite examples of MCC's transparency track record here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

• ONLINE RECORDS: A number of bills strengthen the ability for people to get information about their public bodies online.

House Bill 3312, filed by Ives, requires any government with a budget greater than $1 million to maintain a website which contains contact information, budgets, ordinances, campaign contributions from vendors, and other data.

House Bill 2747, filed by Rep. Deborah Conroy, D-Villa Park, amends FOIA to require public bodies to accept records requests by email, and to provide an email address to which requests can be sent.

Conroy's bill essentially adds electronic mail to the formats by which FOIAs can be submitted. I have run across instances in which a public body will only accept FOIA requests by letter because email is not explicitly listed in the act.

One disadvantage of House Bill 3312 is that Ives included language that allows governments to deny FOIA requests if the information is available online. Lawmakers in previous years have unsuccessfully tried to enact such an exemption.

The problem, as I have blogged about before, is that such an exemption disenfranchises people who do not have access to the Internet, such as senior citizens, the poor and minorities. Access to public information should not be a privilege that is limited by socioeconomic factors.

• BIG RAISE HEARING:Senate Bill 1222, filed by Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, requires that a special public hearing be held if any county, township or municipal government wants to give an employee a raise greater than 6 percent.

Murphy has attempted this bill in previous years. Hopefully he'll be successful this time. As I wrote earlier, and as we wrote in an award-winning 2010 investigative series, big end-of-career salary boosts is one of the reasons why the state is up to its eyeballs in pension debt.

• STATE DATA PORTAL: A slew of bills seek to add a lot more information to the Illinois Transparency and Accountability Portal regarding how taxpayer money is spent:

House Bill 1040, sponsored by local Reps. Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, and Jack Franks, D-Marengo, adds all state grants. Senate Bill 2381, filed by Sen. Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, does the same for grants to community-based organizations that provide local services.

House Bill 1031, also filed by Tryon, adds pension contributions from state employees in the General Assembly and state employees' retirement systems, and would require the website to accommodate online comments and questions.

House Bill 1555, filed by Rep. Tom Cross, R-Oswego, adds amounts spent on individual consultants, and contracts for "all units of local government with taxing powers." It also requires the website to list the rates of return on the investments of all five state-run pension systems and the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund.

House Bill 2624, filed by state Rep. Mike Fortner, R-West Chicago, would add the salaries of library employees. As I wrote and blogged about in the past, the Illinois Library Association is one of those taxpayer-funded lobbying groups that likes to fight transparency laws.

• PORK WATCH: Tryon has also filed House Bill 1035, which requires the comptroller to create an online searchable database of how lawmakers dole out their member initiative funds.

• LEGAL FEES: Senate Bill 1514, filed by Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Skokie, makes it easier for people to get their legal fees reimbursed should they win a court case against a public body over a FOIA request.

• MEETING QUESTIONS:House Bill 2872, filed by Rep. Brad Halbrook, R-Charleston, requires that a public body asked a question during the public comment portion of a meeting that it cannot answer on the spot must provide a written response no later than its next meeting.
: House Bill 2874, also by Halbrook, invalidates the actions taken at any meeting in which notice is not continually given, as required by law, for the 48 hours prior.

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

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