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A.G. Madigan pushing for open records reform

SPRINGFIELD – Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s removal from office signals a new direction for how open records issues are handled in state government.

But will it be more cooperation or antagonism? Attorney General Lisa Madigan wants new Gov. Pat Quinn to set a tone of openness right away.

Madigan sent Quinn a letter on his first day in office urging him to issue an executive order making open records access a priority. He should appoint special staffers to oversee records requests and review scores of denials by the Blagojevich administration to see whether violations occurred, Madigan said.

Madigan says Blagoj­evich and his top staff set the wrong mind-set on releasing information during his six years in office, and Quinn can quickly change course.

“At least we signal to the public that there is going to be an adherence to the laws,”  Madigan said in an interview last week with The (Springfield) State Journal-Register. “It’s that we actually have a culture of transparency as opposed to what we’ve endured over the last six years, which is this culture of secrecy.”

Quinn’s office says it is reviewing Madigan’s request along with proposals forthcoming from the ethics reform commission he created.

Quinn spokesman Bob Reed said he couldn’t comment on whether an executive order would be issued, but agreed that there were problems before.

“He felt that greater transparency and openness was needed in the previous administration,” Reed said.

Among Quinn’s new hires is Jay Stewart, the former head of the Better Government Administration, who clashed with the Blagojevich administration over access. Reed said Stewart is working as a staff lawyer and adviser on open records issues.

Madigan’s request comes as her office continues to work with open government groups on an overhaul of the state’s Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, which should be ready for legislative consideration in the next few weeks.

Don Craven, a Springfield lawyer who represents media and other clients on open government issues, says he’s encouraged by what he’s hearing from Madigan and Quinn.

“I think we have to take these statements by both of these offices at face value,” Craven said. “I frankly believe them when they say they are trying to make things better.”

The move is part of Madigan’s public push for access to open records and meetings in Illinois government.

She created a public access counselor in her office four years ago to help reporters and the public with open government issues. That division has handled thousands of requests for help, mostly from the public.

Her letter asks Quinn to create a high-level attorney within his office and attorneys or managers within each state agency, board and commission to serve as a point person on open records and meeting access issues. Madigan requests mandatory training by her office of those “public information officers” on the state’s open records, or sunshine, laws.

The attorney general also wants Quinn to review all open records denials made by Blagojevich’s administration since January 2003, determine whether any were improper, and release information for those improperly denied.

Reed says Quinn isn’t saying “no” to the denial review but thinks there are better ways to address the open records issue.

Madigan points to examples involving federal subpoenas and hiring lists where information clearly should have been released but wasn’t.

“The governor’s office was directly controlling the information that came out of all the state agencies,” Madigan said. “There was no spirit of openness there. There rarely appeared to be a dedication to following the sunshine law.”

She acknowledges a part of the problem is the law itself. Many loopholes let government bodies off the hook for refusing to release information or simply ignoring requests.

Madigan is working with Craven and others to give enforcement more teeth and close loopholes so both governments and the public know what is considered open information.

Two major sticking points remain: deciding how and where to put the position of public access counselor within state government and how to structure exemptions that allow some information to be off-limits.

Madigan hopes those issues can be resolved soon so lawmakers can consider FOIA reforms as part of a broader effort at cleaning up government in the wake of Blagojevich’s arrest on corruption allegations and impeachment.

She dodged a question about whether she’s interested in running for governor – a move that could put her at odds with Quinn if he decides to run for re-election.

“The time for politics is not now, “ Madigan said. “The time for dealing with the state’s fiscal crisis and our integrity crisis; that has to be the priority, and it continues to be mine.”

Craven says that adding more lawyers to review open records’ requests could be used to slow down the process, and some changes to the FOIA law might not go as far as he’d like.

But the effort is welcome if officials show the political will to adopt real reform, he says.

“Anything is better than what we’ve got now,” Craven said.

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