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Our View: Sunshine laws bearing fruit in Illinois

Some states have a reputation for honesty in government. Not Illinois. Too many ethical and financial scandals have tarnished the state.

Government secrecy breeds Illinois-style corruption. Openness and transparency are an antidote. When government officials can’t hide illegal or unethical activities in the shadows, dishonest behavior is less likely to flourish.

In the wake of the Rod Blagojevich scandal, stronger public access laws took effect in Illinois 3 years ago. The purpose was to make it harder for governmental officials to evade the Illinois Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act.

Sunshine Week is a good time to assess the results of those laws.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan released a report this week that discusses more than 3,400 requests dealt with last year by her office’s Public Access Bureau.

Of the 3,407 matters received, 3,119 were requests to review the denial of public records, and 288 were requests to review apparent violations of the Open Meetings Act.

By far, members of the public have made the most requests that seek opinions on public documents and meetings.

More than 80 percent of matters regarding denial of FOIA records requests came from the public, 16 percent were from the news media and 3 percent came from public bodies.

Likewise, nearly 77 percent of requests for review regarding Open Meetings Act violations came from the public, 18 percent came from the media and 5 percent were from public bodies.

Those statistics demonstrate the public’s intense interest in obtaining government records and ensuring open meetings.

Madigan also reported a big increase in the number of public officials who were trained about their responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act.

More than 72,000 people registered for online training in 2012, compared to the 29,000 public officials who were trained in 2011.

Such training should bode well for the future.

Why?

It is our hope that public officials, properly trained, will embrace the key philosophy of public access laws: the presumption of openness.

Officials should presume that public records should be released.

Officials should presume that public meetings should be open.

Some exemptions exist, of course. If officials adopt the presumption of openness, however, they will hide behind those exemptions less and less.

Sunshine Week was first observed in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors. It takes place each year during the week that contains March 16, the birthday of James Madison. The fourth president was a Founding Father who helped write the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Madison spent much of his life creating a government of the people, by the people, for the people. It’s wrong to have Madison’s hard work subverted by today’s corrupt government officials.

By encouraging open and transparent government, Sunshine Week supports the vision of Madison and his fellow Founders.

The best way to thwart shady governmental activities? Open the doors and drawers, and let the sun shine in.

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