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Transparency and That Dreaded ‘Four Letter Word’

Last week Illinois taxpayers welcomed the long-awaited introduction of a convenient transparency tool, a tool which informs taxpayers of Illinois government employee salaries, workers compensation monthly payouts and retiree information.

Adam Andrzejewski (2010 GOP candidate for governor) has done a phenomenal job of launching a discovery website titled www.openthebooks.com.

There was no limit to the dignitaries more than willing to be seen at the press conference launching this resourceful website. Yet some of these same dignitaries continue to refuse those asking for public documents. (This begs the question that the rhetoric referring to “transparency'” may have more in common with “hypocrisy.”)

The website Open the Books proves that approximately 15 percent of the Illinois state budget is devoted to pension payouts for its retirees.

According to Illinois is Broke (www.illinoisisbroke.com), an organization devoted to divulging government financial data; Illinois far exceeds the national retiree payout average of 4 percent.

How are organizations such as Open the Books, ”Illinois is Broke” website and every news outlet able to disclose and reveal salary as well as internal budget information?

This is due to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act passed by the Illinois Legislature. A shortened term for a request for information is known internally as a FOIA request. Oops, there it is—that dreaded four-letter word: FOIA.

Freedom of information legislation was designed by the state and federal government and was encouraged for passage in Springfield by the Illinois Press Association.

The Illinois Attorney General’s Office states “that it is the public policy of the state that public bodies exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business and that the people have a right to be informed as to the conduct of their business.” Matters involving personnel, land acquisition or active legal actions are exempt from the Act.

The FOIA laws (by which they are familiarly known) are either embraced, scorned or silently ridiculed by many. Admittedly, FOIA requests can be a great deal of work for a public body receiving a request.

That being said, it is also admitted that public documents, government expenditures, e-mails sent on government owned computers and exponential data is owned by those picking up the tab, namely the taxpayer.

But when a citizen enters the maze of minutia involved with filing a FOIA request, a real “Ali Shuffle” can begin.
The law specifies that a government entity must name a FOIA officer. That officer is responsible for responding to a FOIA request within five business days. Within that time period the officer must inform the ‘petitioner’ (the watchdog group, taxpayer or curious overseer) that they will either submit the information requested, need more time or provide a formal written reason for denying the request.

The new law ensures that if the government office does not respond within the mandated time period or the request requires more time, they must provide the information.

Here is where the true “bobbing and weaving” begins.

A citizen or reporter denied information can file a grievance with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office. For instance: If a governing body refuses to provide the information, a citizen or member of the media can file a complaint with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office. After the AG’s office has reviewed the exceptions listed as exemptions, they can demand the information be released immediately.

The law specifies that public meeting minutes should or must be evaluated for release every six months or at the latest in one year. Yet today, in some instances, this has not been done.

In correspondence from government entitities to the Attorney General citizens that have requested information have been formally described as ‘harassing’ government entities.

In this event, if a citizen is refused information and it doesn’t affect any of the exceptions to law, a grievance can be filed with the proper authorities.

In some instances a letter is sent from the Illinois Attorney General demanding that the information be released to a citizen.
Fortunately this refusal by a local county government is the exception rather than the rule.

Many government offices are more than willing to immediately respond with whatever document a member of the press or public is seeking.

In this technical and electronic era providing information is far more efficient and timely.

Elected officials, mostly without exception, appear to be highly in favor of openness, transparency and are onboard with providing the public information.

They should recognize that the Illinois Attorney General has records of the denials and disputes involved in the public’s ‘right to know.’

It is also good to note that the Illinois Attorney General’s office has an open record policy on investigating FOIA refusals by government agencies.

This is a effective check and balance in regard to campaign rhetoric from those candidates professing “openness” or “transparency” absent the record to back it up.

Christine T. Dudley
Geneva Patch
Ex Educator, Coach, Activist Mom of Twenty Something with an evolving perspective on government

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