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Fight for public access goes on

Published: Saturday, March 22, 2014 12:02 a.m. CDT

Illinois’ journey toward greater transparency and openness in government made progress last year.

That’s good news for every supporter of good government in a state notorious for government corruption.

In honor of Sunshine Week, Attorney General Lisa Madigan released a 2013 report of activities by her office’s Public Access Bureau. The bureau was formalized when Illinois’ transparency law overhaul took effect in 2010, a year after Gov. Rod Blagojevich was booted from office.

The overhaul strengthened the Illinois Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act, which are designed to ensure public access to government records and meetings – letting the sun shine on the darkest recesses of government, so to speak, to expose illegal and unethical actions.

The Public Access Bureau is the place where citizens and news reporters can ask for help when FOIA records requests are denied and open meetings laws are violated. The bureau handled 3,426 formal requests for assistance last year, slightly above the 3,407 in 2012.

Of the 3,036 requests for FOIA help, 82 percent came from the public, 16 percent from the news media, and 1 percent from public bodies.

Of the 387 complaints regarding open meetings violations, 70 percent came from the public, 26 percent from the news media, and 4 percent from public bodies.

The response shows that the general public is making extensive use of the Public Access Bureau, which is a positive development. The 2010 overhaul empowered the attorney general’s office to issue binding opinions regarding public access issues.

Binding opinions issued last year required the release of traffic accident records regarding the Bloomington assistant police chief; judged that a fire protection district violated the law by convening a meeting 26 miles away from its normal meeting place; ruled that the dismissal of a Geneva school employee, without identifying the employee, violated the law; and required Knox County to disclose settlement agreements to the public that were covered by confidentiality clauses.

While it is good to see that the Public Access Bureau is being utilized, it’s not so good when you realize that, when it comes to freedom of information and open meetings, far too many governmental employees and elected officials still don’t get it.

They deny FOIA requests for public documents, prompting appeals to the bureau. They break the law regarding open meetings, prompting appeals to the bureau. We expected that the required training by thousands of public officials would increase their adherence to the letter and spirit of Illinois’ new transparency laws. That clearly did not happen in 2013. We call on government officials to make it happen in 2014.

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