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Illinois state legislators threaten public records reform

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  1. Freedom of Information
Just weeks after last year's overhaul that strengthened Illinois' freedom of information laws took effect, there are more than a…

Just weeks after last year’s overhaul that strengthened Illinois’ freedom of information laws took effect, there are more than a half-dozen proposals before the state legislature that would create new obstacles to accessing records, The State Journal-Register reported.

The amendments range from increasing the amount of money that agencies can charge for public records to "making awards of attorney’s fees optional in cases in which requestors successfully sue public agencies," the story said.

Illinois Gov. Patrick Quinn signed a sweeping reform of the state’s FOIA and open meetings laws after they passed unanimously in both chambers of the legislature. Shortly after, Donald Craven, the interim director for the Illinois Press Association, told The News Media and The Law that while “[t]his new law puts into place a much stronger freedom of information act than existed in Illinois before . . . you cannot legislate people into doing the right things for the right reason . . . if they want to snub their nose at this law they can; so yes, we have a long way to go.”

Just over a month after the overhaul took effect on Jan. 1, legislators have responded with a quick succession of bills that would undo many of the very things the FOIA rewrite sought to address.

“Essentially, all of these elements [bills] are looking at chipping away at transparency provisions that are barely in effect,” Terry Pastika, executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center, told The State Journal-Register. “Even the introduction of these bills is premature.”

Lawmakers have already passed two bills to limit public access. One created an online database to locate buried bodies, which is exempt from public disclosure. The second, and most controversial, bars the disclosure of evaluations of teachers, administrators, and superintendents.The amendment garnered negative attention, particularly since Illinois legislators seemingly protected teacher evaluations from disclosure in order to maintain support from teacher’s unions and to qualify for up to $500 million in federal stimulus money, Illinois State House News reported in January.

The amendments "would reverse something that we did in the re-write that just went into effect on Jan.1," said Beth Bennett, the government relations director of the Illinois Press Association, which was involved in every drafting stage of the FOIA revisions. "How can we have a plethora of bills come through reversing those exact things?"

The Illinois Attorney General’s Office, which is the vessel through which the public can address FOIA grievances, spearheaded the overhaul effort last year. But so far, the office has taken a neutral stance on the amendments.

"There are a lot of reaction bills," Bennett said. "Did we expect that — yeah, but what we had hoped was that the Attorney General’s Office and the new access counselor would aggressively oppose any new legislation . . . we are in a wait-and-see mode."