Every March, newspapers around the county commemorate Sunshine Week to stress the importance of open government.
In the Illinois General Assembly, February is shaping up to be Secrecy Month.
State lawmakers since Feb. 8 have filed at least seven bills aimed at rolling back improvements to the Illinois Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts that took effect in 2010. They range from the ability to charge more for records to a bill that would eliminate numerous provisions of the new law.
A similar pattern emerged last year – within weeks of the new FOIA taking effect, a slew of bills were filed with the intent of watering down the reforms. Unlike last year, however, there are at least five bills aimed at strengthening the laws and building on the improvements.
But the number of bills that seek to whittle FOIA down is a familiar, and disappointing, pattern to Josh Sharp, director of government relations for the Illinois Press Association, of which the Northwest Herald is a member.
“There’s a whole lot of stuff that’s a retreat from last year – more of it is bad than it is good, and that’s pretty much standard in Illinois’ culture of openness,” Sharp said. “Everyone seems to want to err on information being kept secret than on the side of openness.”
Lawmakers in the months after the arrest, impeachment and indictment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich approved sweeping reforms to a FOIA law that was considered by critics to be far too weak and easy to abuse. The reforms, drafted by Attorney General Lisa Madigan with the help of good-government and news media groups, shortened the response time from seven days to five, limited exemptions and what governments could charge for copies, and gave Madigan’s office binding authority to enforce both FOIA and the Open Meetings Act.
The most profound cuts are proposed in Senate Bill 2203, which would double public bodies’ response time for requests to 10 days, eliminate the requirement that they provide the first 50 black-and-white copies free, and make applications for people seeking to fill vacancies to public office exempt from public view. The bill also would eliminate the requirement that public bodies offer detailed reasons for denying FOIA requests and the requirement that they seek permission from the attorney general before citing the most often-abused exemptions.
Bill sponsor Sen. David Koehler, D-Pekin, said he submitted the bill at the behest of school districts and other bodies that he said might be struggling with the cost and burden of the new laws. He said he anticipated finding middle ground between the bodies and groups opposed to weakening the law.
“This is a starting point. It’s a way to get the discussion going,” Koehler said. “I’ve always been a proponent of full transparency, and I don’t want to go back on that, but the cost issue is a real issue.”
Sharp said that a proponent of full transparency would not advance a sweeping law such as Senate Bill 2203.
“That bill would roll back the clock on the FOIA rewrite, and make it even worse than it was before, and that’s a low bar,” Sharp said.
Illinois first approved a FOIA in 1984, and was the last state to do so. A 1999 audit of state governments by The Associated Press found that more than two-thirds of them did not comply with FOIA. A 2006 investigation by the Better Government Association yielded a 60 percent noncompliance rate – almost 40 percent of the Illinois governments tested never even responded to the FOIA request.
Several legislators in the current session have filed bills aimed at giving the public more openness. One senate bill would require any government giving an employee a raise of 6 percent or more to hold a public hearing, and another would require most elected officials to undergo training to comply with the Open Meetings Act.
One proposed reform was inspired by the investigation surrounding former Metra Executive Director Phil Pagano, who committed suicide by train near his rural Crystal Lake home last May. Senate Bill 39 would make communications between a public body and an attorney acting as a lobbyist on its behalf public record.
The bill was written by Sen. Susan Garrett, D-Lake Forest, a vocal Metra critic in the wake of reports that Pagano skimmed hundreds of thousands of dollars from the agency. She said Metra often denied her lobbying contracts she wanted to audit because the lobbyists happened to be attorneys.
“I wanted to understand how they were spending their money, and they pretty much slammed the door in my face and hid behind attorney-client privilege,” Garrett said.
Garrett, who has sponsored many bills to improve sunshine laws, said she would oppose any bills curtailing them. So did state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, who often has partnered with Garrett to push through legislation aimed at reforming Metra and the other Chicago mass-transit agencies.
“I’m always for more transparency, and I would be against anything that inhibits putting more sunshine on government,” Franks said.
On the Net
To read about the new Illinois Freedom of Information Act, visit foia.ilattorneygeneral.net.
Sunshine laws under attack again
At least eight bills filed since the start of the new General Assembly in January are aimed at weakening the state’s Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts:
• Senate Bill 2203 proposes numerous new limits to FOIA. It seeks to double response time from five to 10 days, eliminate the requirement that bodies provide the first 50 pages of a response free, and exempt applications to fill vacancies to public office. It also seeks to eliminate the requirement that public bodies ask the Attorney General’s permission to invoke the often-abused personal privacy or draft exemptions, and the mandate that public bodies offer act-based reasons for FOIA denials.
• Senate Bill 2285 seeks to extend the exemption for records that would affect investigations to any public body, rather than only the public body receiving the request.
• Senate Bill 132 proposes establishing a new process for procuring state engineering professional services, but exempts firms’ performance evaluations from disclosure.
• House Bill 1715 proposes that public bodies would not be required to provide copies of public records available on their websites.
• House Bill 1716 would allow public bodies to charge records requesters for the cost of retrieving public records from off-site storage locations run by third parties.
• Senate Bill 2048 and House Bill 2050 seek to exempt names, addresses and other personal information of participants in park district, conservation and other recreation agency programs.
• House Bill 1277 seeks to allow public bodies to close meetings with external auditors or audit committees to discuss internal control weaknesses, fraud or potential fraud.
At least five bills are aimed at making right-to-know laws stronger:
• Senate Bill 39 seeks to make communications between a public body and an attorney-lobbyist regarding lobbying or spending public money for services on the body’s behalf public record.
• House Bill 1670 seeks to require that elected officials in Illinois take Open Meetings Act training after their election.
• Senate Bill 1624 seeks to limit recent blanket exemptions for task forces dealing with abuse, mental health, and juvenile deaths in state custody.
• House Bill 155 seeks to forbid the Illinois Department of Natural Resources from classifying a records request by a municipality as a commercial request, which carries a 21-day response time rather than five business days.
• Senate Bill 1901 seeks to mandate that any government that wants to raise an employee salary by more than 6 percent hold a public hearing.