After months of never-ending snowfall, a story about “Sunshine Week” should draw plenty of interest.
OK, this isn’t about that kind of sunshine. But the sunshine we are referring to is important as well.
Today marks the first day of Sunshine Week, an annual initiative from the American Society of Newspaper Editors to remind people of the importance of open government and access to public information. Both are governed in Illinois by the state Open Meetings Act and the state Freedom of Information Act.
As former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis observed in 1933, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” In short, people in positions of authority tend to make better decisions when the public is watching them.
“Sometimes people don’t relate to it, but the fact is, public access to information is the life blood of our democracy,” said Kane County Chronicle general manager and former Northwest Herald managing editor Larry Lough, who helped shape Indiana’s sunshine laws. “That might sound pointy-headed academic, but it’s the truth.”
It’s not self-congratulatory media puffery – the vast majority of Freedom of Information Act requests come from the public, not the press. In 2006, almost 80 percent of the requests or complaints regarding FOIA or the Open Meetings Act received by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office came from regular citizens, with politicians and journalists accounting for about 10 percent each.
Sunshine in our backyard
The Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts follow the premise that government works for the people. They are not meant to limit what government can release to the public, but limit what government can conceal from them.
The Northwest Herald has selected eight recent stories that either relied on open government laws to acquire the information, or chronicled attempts by local governments to curtail public access.
The list is a reminder of how important it is for every American, not just journalists, to have open and prompt access to information.
The McHenry County Department of Health brain cancer study
Situation: Three former McCullom Lake next-door neighbors with brain cancer sued several area manufacturers in April 2006. One month later, the McHenry County Department of Health presented an epidemiology study concluding that area brain cancer rates were not above normal, and that the manufacturers’ pollution was not responsible.
The Northwest Herald received the department’s research and correspondence under the Freedom of Information Act in summer 2007, and obtained the former county epidemiologist’s deposition from the attorney.
Why it’s important to you: The study was the county’s response to a significant health concern. The newspaper was curious about how a county health department put together a brain cancer epidemiology study and called an all-clear in a month.
The result: The newspaper’s subsequent story in December 2007 showed that the county study was guided by college textbooks and class notes, and relied on assumptions, data too old and too limited to be relevant, and maps and data provided by the defendant companies.
The department and board of health still stand by the study.
School board closed-door meetings
Situation: A 2007 Northwest Herald analysis of District 300’s school board minutes concluded that the board repeatedly took public business into closed session, violating the Open Meetings Act. A subsequent investigation showed that about half of the county’s school districts also were non-compliant with open meetings laws.
Why it’s important to you: Property owners pay thousands of dollars a year in property taxes to fund public schools. They have a right to expect school board discussions on how that money is spent to be held in the open.
The result: District 300 began opening up by posting FOI requests online. The Illinois State Board of Education, as a result of the newspaper’s investigation, added Open Meetings Act compliance to its annual school district inspection checklist.
Sheriff’s deputy DUI
Situation: Probationary county sheriff’s deputy Donald Anderson was off-duty and allegedly drunk when he crashed his squad car in January 2007 into a tree in Crystal Lake. While the sheriff’s office took Anderson for a blood test which proved that he was over the legal blood-alcohol limit, the Crystal Lake Police officer at the scene did not give Anderson any sobriety tests, did not mention alcohol in his report, and did not cite Anderson.
The Northwest Herald, shortly after hearing about the case, asked for the accident report under the Freedom of Information Act.
Why it’s important to you: Police officers and other public officials should be held just as accountable to the law as the average citizens who pay their salaries – and whose taxes paid the $17,000 for the totaled squad car.
The result: Crystal Lake charged Anderson after the Northwest Herald filed the Freedom of Information Act request, although police officials said the charges were pending anyway. The sheriff’s department fired Anderson, who in September pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of reckless driving. The Crystal Lake Police Department took steps to ensure that such an incident would not happen again.
MCC’s baseball feasibility study
Situation: The McHenry County College Board of Trustees last year developed a plan to finance the bonds on a proposed health and wellness center with a stadium for a minor-league baseball team. Although the board repeatedly stated that the plan would turn a profit and pay off the bonds, they denied numerous Freedom of Information Act requests from residents, activists, bloggers and the Northwest Herald for their feasibility study.
Why it’s important to you: Had the plan not worked or had the team folded, someone would have to pay off the $32 million in bonds. Barring a philanthropist with deep pockets, that someone likely would have been taxpayers.
The result: The proposal became moot when the Crystal Lake City Council rejected the idea. But the college eventually relented and released a heavily redacted version of the study in November, about eight months after first receiving it, which concluded that the baseball stadium would run a deficit for the first five years.
However, a second set of numbers showed the stadium would turn a small profit in its first year.
Township hiring policies
Situation: The Grafton Township Highway Commissioner stirred up controversy in 2006 when he tried to hire his daughter for a $39,500-a-year office manager position. When the township board cut the salary in half, he also hired her as a part-time flagger.
The Northwest Herald decided to examine the payrolls of all 17 county townships under the Freedom of Information Act to determine how widespread family hiring is in township government.
Why it’s important to you: Although nepotism is not illegal in township government hiring, it at the least carries the appearance of impropriety. An employer may have a more difficult time disciplining or terminating a relative, and township government, unlike a family business, is funded by tax dollars.
The result: The Northwest Herald discovered in early 2007 that 14 of the county’s 17 townships had family members on the payrolls, and that at least five spouses, siblings or children received salaries of $30,000 or more as assistants or office managers.
County Board and MCC photography policies
Situations: Both the McHenry County Board and the McHenry County College Board of Trustees attempted over the past year to ban flash photography during meetings, in reaction to blogger Cal Skinner’s prodigious picture taking. The County Board’s version also required that photographers shoot from the back of the board room, which is at least 50 feet away from the podium.
The newspaper sought an opinion from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office regarding the proposed County Board rules. Comments from involved County Board members hinted that the rules would give the board chairman discretion over who could take photos and who could not.
Why it’s important to you: The Open Meetings Act explicitly protects taping and filming of meetings, while allowing local governments to pass “reasonable rules” to maintain decorum. In an age of blogging and citizen journalism, that protection is now more important than ever.
The results: The Attorney General’s Office stated in a three-page advisory letter that restricting photographers to the back of the room might exceed “reasonable” rules. The County Board never passed the ban, citing mostly unfavorable public reaction. The MCC board in January passed its restriction, 3-2.
McHenry County bridge safety
Situation: In the wake of last year’s tragic collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis, the Northwest Herald decided to analyze the U.S. Department of Transportation’s safety ratings of area bridges.
Because the federal safety ratings for bridges are public information, the newspaper examined seven area bridges spanning the Fox River, and the federal ratings for all 198 bridges in McHenry County.
Why it’s important to you: It’s safe to say that many workers’ daily commutes involve crossing at least one bridge. The I-35W disaster, which killed 13 people and injured at least 100 more, made people question how safe their bridges were.
The result: The analysis revealed that all seven of the Fox River bridges reviewed passed muster, and that 9.6 percent of the county’s bridges were rated as deficient. But two of the busiest had the worst ratings and are within a few miles of one another on Route 176.
Several of the rural bridges are set to be replaced under the county’s newly funded transportation plan. The Illinois Department of Transportation is expected to start replacing the Route 176 bridges this year.
District 300 charter school
Situation: The Northwest Herald last September attempted to acquire the charter of the new Cambridge Lakes Charter School in District 300 under the Freedom of Information Act. The Northern Kane Educational Corp., which administers the school, attempted to charge a copying fee of 36 cents per page for the 316-page document, as well as a $35 mailing fee.
Executive Director Larry Fuhrer said the cost included $26 an hour in “administrative fees.”
Why it’s important: The act forbids charging excessive fees for copying documents – governments can only charge for reproduction costs and not staff time or legal advice involved in their release. At 36 cents a page, any taxpayer wanting a copy of the document would have to pay $113.76, excluding the mailing fee.
The Illinois Attorney General’s Office, which investigates violations of open government laws, charges 15 cents per page for documents of 30 pages or more.
The result: The newspaper appealed the fee. The head of the corporation’s board subsequently lowered the cost to 15 cents a page, and explained that the mailing fee was only for special overnight delivery.