|NMU||ILLINOIS||Freedom of Information|
Governor signs open government legislation
- One bill, signed into law by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, requires government bodies to record executive sessions; another permits courts to award attorneys fees and court costs to plaintiffs in FOI Act cases.
Aug. 19, 2003 — Gov. Rod Blagojevich in recent weeks signed two pieces of legislation designed to strengthen the state’s open government laws.
SB 1586, commonly known as the “verbatim record” bill, requires local governmental bodies to keep a verbatim record each time the body goes into executive “closed” session. The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago) and Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), amends the state’s open meetings law.
Under the new law, when a public body meets in private session it must keep an audio or video record of the closed meeting. The recording is not available for public inspection or copying, nor is it subject to discovery in any administrative proceedings other than those brought to enforce the Illinois Open Meetings Act. Only judges may review the recordings, and they may do so privately in their chambers. Judges also may redact any conversations that meet the qualifications of attorney-client privilege. Public bodies may destroy the audio or video recordings without public notice after holding them for 18 months.
The Illinois Press Association, which had pushed for the “verbatim record” for 10 years, says that Illinois is now the first state in the nation to require a such a record be kept of all executive sessions.
“We think citizens will benefit from this,” said IPA Executive Director David L. Bennett. “The real benefit is that all public officials will have to watch what they do. They’re going to have to think about how they behave when they go behind closed doors.”
Illinois has at least 6,700 separate taxing government bodies, according to Bennett. “We’re at the zenith of corruption,” Bennett said. “We have more units of government than any other state, which complicates the whole thing.”
On Aug. 8, Blagojevich signed another open government bill that allows a court to award costs and attorneys fees to plaintiffs who successfully prove that a public body illegally withheld materials sought by FOI Act requests. The legislation was sponsored by Currie and Sen. John Cullerton (D-Chicago).
“This is an important step forward because it provides a reason for people who choose to litigate in FOI cases to do so with some reasonable expectation that if they prevail, they will recover attorneys fees and court costs,” Bennett said.
Previously plaintiffs could recover fees only if they could “prove that the record was highly significant to the general public and that the public body lacked a reasonable basis for the denial,” Bennet said. “The effect was that people stopped suing because going to court was not a viable option. You had to know you had an iron-clad case.”
© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press