Candidates running for office this month keep promising to end corruption. You can’t trust them. It’s up to you to stop the crooks.
All across the state, your elected officials are holding secret meetings, spending millions of your tax dollars and doing their best to prevent you from examining public documents paid for with your tax money.
This is nothing new. It has been going on in Illinois for decades.
In 2009, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan pushed through the state Legislature a new Freedom of Information Act giving ordinary people greater access to such documents by reducing many of the loopholes that existed in the law.
Madigan also created the office of Public Access Counselor to help residents examine those records and force government to open their meetings.
As vice president of freedom of information for the Chicago Headline Club, I played a key role in those changes because as a newspaper reporter I was fed up with the dishonesty of elected officials.
Elected leaders often adopted the attitude that they owned the government and would decide what information the public was entitled to, often leading to the abuse of their power and outright theft.
I’m not just talking about Illinois governors and state legislators, but also mayors, aldermen, village trustees, school board members, college trustees and even park district board members.
They like to hold closed door meetings in violation of the Illinois Open Meetings Act to avoid discussing the public’s business in public.
Why? Because talking about this stuff in public results in questions from people about how their money is being spent and who is benefitting. Discussing such details behind closed doors also discourages attendance at public meetings.
Who wants to attend meetings when nothing of importance is ever discussed there? Sometimes the public discussions are so vague, “We’re going to vote on agenda item 9c now” that it becomes impossible for a citizen to make an informed decision a responsibility that is at the very core of our democracy.
That’s why the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is so important. This is the law that allows anyone to obtain copies of public documents (meeting minutes, tape recordings of those executive sessions, contracts, studies, phone records, emails, etc.) to find out what their government is actually doing.
In this era when newspapers are closing, readership eroding, and advertising revenues dwindling, there aren’t as many reporters as there used to be to keep an eye on government. But even in the golden era of newspapers they relied heavily on citizen activists to blow the whistle on corrupt government officials, as do prosecutors.
Unfortunately, there are still hundreds of exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act, and your government agencies have lawyers, paid by you, to keep you from seeing the government documents you paid for in the first place.
I hoped the Illinois public access counselor, under the attorney general, would act as the peoples’ lawyer. To some extent that has happened.
Unfortunately, the office has been underfunded since its inception. And it has become such a bureaucratic maze that that the complaints of average citizens get bogged down in the legal process, taking months or even years to resolve.
Madigan is not running for re-election. The next attorney general must devote more resources to the office and commit to putting real teeth in the law.
One remedy being suggested is a fine on governments that illegally hold secret meetings or deny public information to citizens. That’s right, another fine that taxpayers would have to pay to get their own information.
I would impose personal fines on government officials and prison time for violators of the law. But you know what, that bill would never pass the state Legislature, which has exempted itself from the law. Never trust your government to the people who control it.