Editorial: Public business does not belong in private emails

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Here’s what’s become transparent in the last week: Too few high-ranking people in government understand public business is to be conducted in public.

Exhibit A is Phyllis Wise, who resigned last week as chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after a tumultuous year. The day after her announcement, it was revealed thatshe and other administrators had used private email accounts to keep communications out of public view.

Exhibit B is Illinois Education Secretary Beth Purvis, who communicated via private email with outside consultants about education policy — despite Gov. Bruce Rauner’s campaign promise that his administration would be all about transparency.

On Monday, Rauner spelled out a sensible email policy: “Don’t use personal email for any government business whatsoever.”Not every one — including the governor’s own office — seems to have gotten the message. Maybe they weren’t checking the right email accounts.

University of Illinois trustees would send the right message Wednesday by voting against a full $400,000 bonus to Wise, who already is getting a sabbatical and a faculty spot at a salary of about $300,000 a year.

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Wise’s 2011 employment offer included a $500,000 retention bonus after five years. Trustees can prorate that amount if she leaves early, but it’s not a requirement. If the trustees fail to reduce that bonus or reject it altogether, they’ll send the message that it’s OK to discuss sensitive or controversial issues out of the public eye.

The 1,100 emails from Wise and other administrators make it clear they were intentionally using private accounts in hopes of keeping their comments out of the public record. In one, Wise wrote, “We are doing virtually nothing over our Illinois email addresses.”

For its part, Rauner’s office fought the release of emails by Purvis. In a seven-page document responding to a Chicago Sun-Times Freedom of Information request, the office argued to the Illinois attorney general’s office that private emails are not subject to Freedom of Information laws.

On Monday, in a belated fit of common sense, Rauner’s office released 44 pages of documents marked “Confidential” from Purvis’ private email account. Among them was a lengthy document describing education strategy in Illinois and key goals with regard to everything from early childhood to teacher merit pay to college affordability.

Whether other emails touched on public business is unknown because the governor let Purvis decide which ones to turn over. That decision should have been made by an outside person with unassailable credentials.

Although the Rauner administration was slow to release the Purvis emails, it was correct Tuesday when it called on the U. of I. trustees to reject the $400,000 payout for Wise.

Big golden parachutes for those at the top don’t sit well when ordinary workers and those who rely on government services are being told to make do with less. There have been far too many golden parachutes lately.

The College of DuPage in January gave its controversial president a $763,000 severance deal. In 2013, Metra paid its ousted CEO a package that at the time was estimated at more than $700,000. The University of Illinois at Chicago paid its chancellor a bonus of almost $100,000 when her contract ended this year. Illinois State University gave a severance of $480,418 last year to a president who had worked for just eight months.

Being good stewards of public money requires spending it more carefully than this. And being good stewards of public policy doesn’t mean hiding that policy in private emails.

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