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Illinois’ trend toward transparency is reversing course

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  1. Freedom of Information
From the Spring 2010 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 13. Since the beginning of the year,…

From the Spring 2010 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 13.

Since the beginning of the year, Illinois lawmakers have proposed 10 laws that would, if passed, scale back the public records reform enacted in the wake of the scandal that ended with the indictment of the state’s former governor, Rod Blagojevich.

Many in the Illinois transparency community felt the reforms to the state’s Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts did not go far enough to begin with — and now, just months after the revisions took effect, members of the Legislature have introduced multiple bills that directly contradict the intent of the reform by restricting public access.

“I don’t think people realize the importance of transparency laws,” said Tracy Siska, the executive director of nonprofit open government group Chicago Justice Project. If the laws pass, he said, the effects on government transparency would be “really, really scary.”

Of the 10 bills that have been proposed, two have become law and two are close behind, both are awaiting the governor’s signature after easily passing in both legislative chambers.

The first passed just 15 days after the reforms went into effect. Public Act 096-0861 exempts the evaluations of teachers, principals and superintendents from public-records laws. It was pushed through by legislators who said the bill would help the state win money from the federal government’s Race to the Top Fund.

Before the rewrite, teacher evaluations were presumptively open with private data redacted, said Beth Bennett of the Illinois Press Association. Her organization worked to keep those records in the public domain during the drafting of the transparency law reform and was caught off guard when those records were taken out of the public domain with the new law. “It’s a blatant contradiction of the reform that just got passed,” Bennett said.

The second law, which was enacted a few days after the first, is the Cemetery Oversight Act. This law creates a database of where every body is buried in the state — then exempts that database from public records requests. Terry Pastika, executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center, told The State Journal-Register that this bill is part of a pattern of “chipping away at transparency.”

Two more bills are awaiting the governor’s signature. One would exempt the performance evaluations of all public employees from records requests; the other would create a Juvenile Mortality Team that will investigate all deaths of juveniles in state facilities. Investigations and findings of the team appear to be exempt from public records laws in the bill’s current form. Bennett says she was assured the final version of the bill would be amended to allow some amount of disclosure, but in early June, the original language remained.

Bennett said she was surprised by the success of the bill exempting the personnel records of all public employees, despite the easy passage of the law exempting teacher evaluations. Despite the press associations “very aggressive effort to kill the bill” and the governor’s promise he will err on the side of transparency, Bennett thinks it will be signed into law and says it’s disappointing that after the major reform effort “we weren’t even given six months before a major feature was gutted.”

Siska says a bill introduced in the House is even more concerning. HB 5069 would remove the mandate in the revised public records act that requests must be fulfilled digitally. The reform would be “worthless without the digital mandate . . . without the mandate, agencies can still say requests are overly burdensome, even if the records are kept digitally,” he said.

Other bills that had been proposed include one that would exempt performance evaluations of police officers and peace officers from public records laws and another that would expand an existing exemption for enforcement records to include also those that affect any enforcement proceeding or investigation.

Siska says he was pleased when Illinois’ public records laws were reformed but he isn’t altogether shocked about what has happened since. “That’s just how Chicago and Illinois do business,” he said.