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Transparency seminar set for officials after election

Published: Friday, March 29, 2013 3:26 p.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, March 30, 2013 12:37 a.m. CDT

Freshman politicians who prevail April 9 should pencil in May 2 on their calendars so they don't end up running afoul of state transparency laws.

It probably wouldn't hurt more than a few of the incumbent politicians to show up, either.

The McHenry County State's Attorney's Office will be hosting a workshop to familiarize elected officials with the state Freedom of Information, Open Meetings and Public Officials Prohibited Activities acts. The two-hour seminar, free of charge and open to the public, starts at 7 p.m. in the Building B conference room at McHenry County College, 8900 Route 14, Crystal Lake.

"While each public body faces different challenges and issues, transparency and a strong ethical foundation are essential to all governmental bodies," the State's Attorney's Office said in a news release.

The seminar also will include a representative from the Illinois Attorney General Public Access Counselor's Office, which since 2010 has had binding authority to enforce FOIA and Open Meetings Act compliance.

State lawmakers gave the office that power in a significant strengthening of Illinois sunshine laws after the arrest, impeachment and indictment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Illinois has about 7,000 units of government, far more than any other state.

The laws mandate that government records and government meetings be open to the public. Anything not explicitly exempted under either law must be public, and the law does not require exemption – for example, a government that wants to negotiate a union contract in open session can do so, despite an exemption allowing them to take it behind closed doors.

Despite public education efforts, investigations have shown that there is room for improvement when it comes to compliance.

A 1999 audit by The Associated Press found that more than two-thirds of the 400 governments they visited statewide – about four per county – did not honor requests for information that is explicitly public under FOIA.

A 2006 investigation by the Better Government Association found that more than 60 percent of the 400 local governments they audited failed to comply with FOIA, and almost 40 percent never even responded to the request. 

An audit last year of 400 governments by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, two years into the stronger FOIA, likewise showed that more than 40 percent never responded to the request.

Although many governments say they strive for openness, the Northwest Herald in recent years has locked horns with governments over public meetings and public documents.

A 2007 audit of county school districts by the newspaper showed that about half of them routinely violated the Open Meetings Act either by taking inappropriate matters into closed session or by not regularly reviewing closed-session minutes for possible release as required by the law.

The public access counselor sided with the newspaper in a 2011 complaint alleging that several McHenry County Board members violated the act by rotating members out of a secret meeting to avoid an attendance number that would require the meeting to be open, and notice given to the public.

The newspaper successfully fought the McHenry County College Board in obtaining the contract of the college's ousted president, and in obtaining a 2007 feasibility study for a proposed minor-league baseball stadium to pay for a new health and wellness center.

If you go

State's Attorney Louis Bianchi's office is holding a two-hour seminar after the election to teach public officials about state open-government laws. The meeting is free of charge and open to the public.

The seminar takes place from 7 to 9 p.m. May 2 at the Building B conference center at McHenry County College, 8900 Route 14, Crystal Lake.

On the Net

You can learn much more about the Illinois Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts at foia.ilattorneygeneral.net.

About this series

"No More Excuses" is an ongoing Northwest Herald series about the public's right to know in Illinois.

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