The environment and government transparency had a friend – and government secrecy a sworn enemy – in Jane Collins.
Her face was a familiar and likely unpopular one at meetings of governments that she believed were not doing their business in the light of public scrutiny as they should, especially if they were dealing with development issues that could hurt the environment. Collins' name was even more familiar to those governments' Freedom of Information Act officers – she frequently wielded Illinois' open-records law to force government disclosure.
Collins died Saturday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 73.
She and her husband, John, moved to a farm plot just outside of Woodstock in 1981. In two years, he said, she planted at least 1,000 trees to turn the property into a forest and orchard. Her lifelong love of the environment turned toward activism as she watched the area's rapid growth, and decided she needed more than her master's degree in French linguistics from Northwestern University to fight it.
"Over the years, she realized that developers and lawyers when she spoke out didn't pay attention to her, so at the age of 55, she went to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb and got her law degree, They had to pay attention to her then," John Collins said with a laugh. "She started to use environmental laws to stop projects that were not well-conceived."
Collins was proactive in the creation of several local environmental groups. She was a founding member and longtime board member of the Land Conservancy of McHenry County, which since 1991 has preserved more than 1,900 acres of county prairie, wetland and forest through purchase and conservation easement. Executive Director Lisa Haderlein said Collins would always make time to coach people willing to ask government tough questions.
"She would empower people to help them get in there and find out what's going on and get answers. There isn't anybody like that who's also an attorney," Haderlein said.
Collins was also a familiar face to several Northwest Herald reporters over the years, whom she would contact with tips about what governments were doing. She so frequently called former community editor Kurt Begalka about local planning commission meetings that she attended that he began paying her as a stringer to cover them.
"She had a real interest in proper planning and just making sure the rules were followed. She was a good watchdog. She went back and got her law degree late in life – that's how tenacious she was," Begalka said.
Some of Collins' most high-profile open-government battles dealt with requiring governments to justify their needs for expansion and their environmental impacts, such as McHenry County College's now-defunct attempts to expand with alternate-revenue bonds, and Dorr Township's attempt to build a new garage. She repeatedly chided MCC's board of trustees for what she called a lack of openness, transparency and noncompliance with Illinois sunshine laws.
Dorr Township repeatedly denied Collins' attempts to obtain soil borings and environmental studies related to the garage project, in clear violation of FOIA, citing among other things the possibility for "misinformation" to taint the bid process and "negative publicity" that would influence voters.
Collins prevailed, courtesy of a souped-up FOIA law that gives Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office the ultimate say. And the township got the negative publicity it feared when Madigan highlighted Collins' struggle in a news release celebrating the one-year anniversary of FOIA's significant improvements.
Much of Collins' work was pro bono, said Patricia Kennedy, president of the Alliance for Land, Agriculture and Water. Collins did much of the legal work for the group's unsuccessful bid to create a rural water authority in an effort to make sure future development does not outpace the area's groundwater supply.
"She was – is – one of the most intelligent people I've ever had a chance to meet," Kennedy said.
Collins served in Nigeria with the Peace Corps, where she met and married her husband in 1967.
Collins' family asked that any donation to her memory be made to the Environmental Defenders of McHenry County, the Land Conservancy of McHenry County, or JourneyCare Hospice.