The real reason the public gets shut out on Freedom of Information Act requests
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Regarding the story, “People count on the Freedom of Information Act but keep getting shut out, (Oct. 11): We are fortunate that Illinois is one of the few states that has granted binding enforcement power over its sunshine laws to an administrative agency, the public access counselor. For one, the story cites research that demonstrates that more than one-quarter of the requests for review resulted in resolution short of a formal ruling, simply because the requester invoked the PAC (and the public body responded).
But more importantly, the PAC’s binding opinions and determination letters provide crucial legal insight into Illinois sunshine laws and help to guide both public officials and public records requesters more than we can know: Armed with binding opinions and determination letters, requesters persuade local governmental authorities to release public records.
While it is true that the PAC uses its binding power sparingly, this is hardly cause for surprise. The office must throw its legal weight behind its binding opinions and be prepared to defend them in court should public bodies challenge them. Diverting resources to defending lawsuits would result in more backlog and fewer resolutions. The PAC must be a credible resource: Only one of its binding decisions was overturned, an important fact that establishes the office’s trustworthiness.
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The PAC’s backlog is symptomatic of larger problems. Government officials and employees either minimize or are disdainful of the public’s right to know. Governmental bodies fail to proactively make available records that are routinely requested. Governments flout Illinois’ sunshine laws due to lack of education or willful ignorance. Our sunshine laws provide too many exemptions to the presumption of transparency and openness.
How do we change this culture? Voters need to prioritize voting for candidates who sincerely believe in transparency and openness. Local government must implement hiring processes that set expectations by emphasizing the public nature of government work. Educators should emphasize principles of transparency in civics lessons in our public schools. Everyone should vigilantly monitor the General Assembly’s attempts to legislate more barriers to transparency and speak out against it. One thing is for certain: the culture will not change by shutting down the PAC’s office or moving it where it will suffer from even less funding than it currently receives.
Executive Director, Citizen Advocacy Center
Rogue killers of Jamal Khashoggi, huh? We now know the value of a courageous journalist’s life — it’s considerably less than a $150 million arms contract with Saudi Arabia.
Robert Ory, Elgin
More on Obama Center
While Margaret Schmid is currently out of the country, I write as her co-president for Jackson Park Watch in response to the letter “No more Obama Center naysaying” (Oct. 12),which incorrectly identified her as an opponent of the Obama Presidential Center.
Jackson Park Watch is not opposed to the Obama Presidential Center, not even to its location in Jackson Park. We welcome the OPC to the South Side and hope for the success of its programs and its catalytic role. We are concerned about the ways in which decisions about Jackson Park — such as the siting of the OPC — are made behind closed doors and without public input and with parkland being treated not as a public good, but as vacant, underused property to be “developed.” We are opposed to the specific footprint within Jackson Park that the OPC now claims for its development, a positioning that would forever change the shape and the character of Olmsted’s historic park by closing portions of Cornell Drive and Midway Plaisance and chopping off wide strips of the east and west sides of the park for additional road changes, all at a cost to taxpayers of $175 million or more.
Yet we know such drastic and costly changes are unnecessary: As representatives of the Obama Foundation have said to us privately, the OPC could be built on the original site designated for it in 2015 without closing Cornell Drive and all that entails. Such a decision would better serve the OPC, the community and President Obama’s legacy.
Co-president, Jackson Park Watch