Trib: “Your Government in Secret”

Chicago Trib today:

Since 2005, more than a thousand citizens have filed complaints about public officials in Illinois who refused requests for public records, most often by completely ignoring them.

A review of those complaints, along with dozens of interviews, reveals a culture of secrecy shrouding the machinery of your government. Public meetings are often theater, where votes are pro forma endorsements of decisions forged in e-mails and memos you will never be allowed to see.

Government records routinely turned over at the front counters in many other states are routinely denied here — the result of a notoriously weak open records law, an unsympathetic political culture and an attitude of disdain among many public servants who consider documents their own.

This is just about the best analysis of the problem I’ve seen, and anyone who can read it and still say, “Change the people, not the system” earns a dunce cap for depth of denial.

The article details three stories of citizens trying to obtain records and getting stonewalled on one lame excuse or another until the Trib steps in to help via its new Open Records Help Desk. One story was that of LaGrange transparency activist Thom Rae, who asked for records related to his village’s decision to spend $1 million (what do you want to bet it was TIF money?) to renovate a theater.

Then he asked for the records — consultants’ reports, fire code memos and other documents — that Village Manager Robert Pilipiszyn and the board members were using to justify spending tax money in the public/private partnership.

All he got was Pilipiszyn’s three-page summary to the board — with 15 of 19 paragraphs blacked out. La Grange officials cited the “preliminary draft” exemption as all the permission they needed to wield their marker.

Rae laughed as he pointed to a heading called “Community Involvement,” under which all the words were inked out. “The entire entry is a secret,” Rae said. “Tell me there’s no irony in that one.”

Besides containing too many loopholes, the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)–unlike its counterpart, the Open Meetings Act (OMA)–contains no penalties for non-compliance. The Illinois Attorney General has been working to get it amended:

The FOIA amendment bill, House Bill 1370, adds provisions to ensure a tone of openness in government, adds teeth to the law by providing for penalties, provides whistleblower protections to government employees who are asked to violate the law, seeks to clarify the personal privacy exemption that is often misused to shield public records from disclosure, and adds provisions to ensure quicker responses to FOIA requests.

The bill most recently was re-referred to the GA Rules Committee.

The Trib stories are interspersed–IMO fairly dramatically–with the reactions of officials who have worked in states with much more stringent transparency laws, including Terry Mutchler, former head of the Attorney General’s Public Access and Opinions Division, who is quoted by the Trib in calling Illinois “the worst state in the country when it comes to transparency and open records” and who recently left to work in a less putrid state.

“It was horrible, ineffective and unbelievably frustrating,” said Mutchler.

[UPDATE: I was right, they are using TIF funds to renovate the LaGrange Theatre.]