How to make clear government serves the people — and not the other way around
Government agencies routinely deny access to public records and dare you to sue. They have lawyers and money and nothing to lose.
Here’s a radical, revolutionary statement: Your government belongs to you.
I am not a member or any far-right fascist organization or a Trump conspiracy theory buff. I do not advocate violence against anyone. But I do believe the government is organized to do the business of the people and therefore should be accountable to them.
We pay these folks. They are our employees.
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Yet, average citizens who try to obtain public documents from their city, county, state or federal government often are treated as if they were foreign agents looking for national secrets. It often seems, in fact, that foreign adversaries like Russia and China have greater access to U.S. government documents than most Americans do.
I mention all of this because Courtney Kueppers of the Chicago Tribune recently wrote a couple of really good stories about problems with the Freedom of Information Act in Illinois. Too often, public information is not made available to the public, despite a law that says it should be.
I take this personally. About a dozen years ago, as vice president of the Chicago Headline Club, I helped spearhead an effort to rewrite the Freedom of Information Act in Illinois. I had spent years writing about problems with the old law and the ways in which government entities used loopholes to frustrate the efforts of citizens to oversee the work of elected bodies.
One change I proposed, with the support of former Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, was to create an office of public access counselor. My idea was that this person, an employee in the attorney general’s office, would be an advocate for average citizens doing battle with government agencies to obtain public records.
You see, government agencies have a distinct advantage in such battles. They have their own attorneys, paid for with taxpayer dollars. Your dollars. So they can deny you access to public documents, dare you to sue, and if you can find the money to do that, well, they don’t care. Because they have even more money and nothing to lose, since it’s not their money.
At the very least, they can create a delay of weeks, if not months, in fulfilling your request for public records, by which time it may no longer matter. By that time, for example, the Chicago City Council may have approved a developer’s plan to build a plant that will befoul the air and water because you were denied access to information that, if publicly known, might have stopped them.
The new Illinois Freedom of Information Act was better than the old one, but it still included massive loopholes. The state Legislature wouldn’t pass the law without them. There is still, for one, no public access officer — no one to raise hell when government agencies refuse to comply or drag their feet.
Many of the old problems with the Freedom of Information Act continue to plague our state.
Let me put this as simply as I can. In this age of smart phones, the cloud and the internet, everything a citizen should need to oversee the actions of government officials should be available electronically.
There should be no need to file paperwork or make electronic appeals that must be screened by some bureaucrat who is unaccountable to the public.
I once advocated for severe personal financial penalties for any elected or appointed government official guilty of willfully and wantonly violating the Freedom of Information Act. I was told state lawmakers would never pass such legislation.
OK. How about we just toss violators in jail for a few months?
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