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Our View: Eliminating the secrecy of severance

Published: Thursday, April 17, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

When it comes to public money, nothing should be kept a secret.

That’s not always the case, obviously, so we applaud state Rep. Renee Kosel and the Illinois House for passing legislation that promotes more transparency in government.

House Bill 3664 amends the Illinois Freedom of Information Act to forbid any public body from imposing confidentiality as a condition of receiving any severance agreement funded in part or in whole with public money. There is an exception to protect a trade secret, proprietary information or information that is otherwise exempt from disclosure under FOIA.

Kosel, R-New Lenox, filed the bill in response to Metra’s refusal last year to reveal details about the generous severance package – projected up to $718,000 – it gave to former CEO Alex Clifford.

Lawmakers in the House last week passed the bill unanimously, 106-0. State Reps. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, and Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, were co-sponsors of the bill.

This bill is the latest step in shining light for the public on severance agreements and employment contracts for public employees. For years, many public bodies would try to keep private employment contracts or separation agreements.

One of the most publicized incidents locally involved McHenry County College and former President Walt Packard. MCC’s board denied releasing Packard’s separation agreement in 2009, citing the personal privacy exemption. However, the Illinois Supreme Court – in an unrelated case – ruled that public employee contracts are public record and could not be withheld under FOIA’s personal privacy exemption. A week later, Packard’s separation agreement was released.

We’re not sure why government continues to try and keep taxpayers in the dark regarding public money and public business. We are happy, however, that lawmakers have taken notice and are working toward better transparency in government.

House Bill 3664 has moved to the state Senate, where Sen. Pam Althoff, R-McHenry, is the sponsor. We hope lawmakers in the Senate follow the lead of their colleagues in the House and pass this bill.

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