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We have a right to better transparency from our governments

Gov. J.B. Pritzker. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Good on Gov. J.B. Pritzker for making one of his first official acts signing an executive order on transparency. It requires all state agencies under his purview to release all data required by law to be disclosed, and to go beyond that whenever possible voluntarily.

We’ve got a crisis in Chicago and in Illinois that involves secret-keeping by those who govern us. Too many government officials don’t comply with laws that compel them to tell us what they’re up to. We cannot monitor nor improve our democracy if its actors are breaking the law, keeping secrets from us and getting away with it.

OPINION

Recent analyses by the Better Government Association’s Annum Haider and ProPublica Illinois’ Mick Dumke examined eight years’ worth of appeals to the Public Access Counselor of the Illinois attorney general. The counselor reviews appeals when government bodies refuse to comply with Freedom of Information and Open Meeting Act requests.

Dumke found the PAC office is understaffed, takes too long to issue rulings and frequently issues non-binding rulings governments easily ignore. Haider’s findings underscore that the laws and penalties must be strengthened and more vigorously enforced.

What is most alarming, but perhaps not surprising, is that it is law enforcement agencies most frequently violating the law.

In appeals over those years to the PAC, government bodies did not even respond to a legal request for information 4,600 times. The top law breakers were the Chicago Police Department (ignoring 672 requests), the Illinois Department of Corrections (519), the State Police (200), Chicago Public Schools (199) and, get this, the Cook County state’s sttorney’s office (162).

The BGA also found that our government officials frequently refuse to provide information, saying they don’t have to under an exemption allowed in the law, but the public access counselor found they did so improperly a whopping 30 percent of the time. The City of East St. Louis refused to release information based on an incorrect exemption 100 percent of the time during this eight-year period. The University of Illinois was found to have misused exemptions 63 percent of the time, among appeals to the PAC.

Lastly, the BGA review looked at 717 requests for review related to open meetings and found that 42 percent of the time someone asked the state’s lawyers to investigate, meetings were being held illegally. Government officials were going behind closed doors when they should not have or failed to properly announce the meeting or allow the public to participate.

We’ve got to demand and expect better transparency from our governments. In Chicago, with a crowded mayor’s race weeks away, the time to hold candidates to account is now.

Matt Topic, the BGA’s outside counsel and the lawyer who represented independent journalist Brandon Smith in forcing the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video, wrote recently, “We aren’t going to solve problems with schools, violence, corruption, finances, or anything else until the City lives up to what the FOIA statute says: ‘Such access is necessary to enable the people to fulfill their duties of discussing public issues fully and freely, making informed political judgments and monitoring government to ensure that it is being conducted in the public interest.’”

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The presumption in the law is and should be that records should be disclosed. That must be how all these government bodies ought to operate. No more waiting months to release shooting videos. No more ignoring requests for public information altogether. The Public Access Counselor’s office must have the resources it needs to do its reviews more quickly and new Attorney General Kwame Raoul should direct the PAC to issue more rulings that are binding. The state’s Freedom of Information Act also should be strengthened so that violators face fines and penalties that bite. In Washington state, for example, courts have discretion to impose fines of $100 per day for violating public records laws.

The culture of secrecy in Illinois must stop. We cannot improve our governments or hold them accountable if we’re left in the dark.

As our new governor said last week, “By shining a light on how the state is and isn’t living up to its responsibility to our citizens, we can start making real improvements in the lives of families across Illinois.”

Madeleine Doubek is executive director of CHANGE Illinois, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for government and political reform.