Protect your right to know — and to find stuff out

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SHARE Protect your right to know — and to find stuff out

Bad ideas, unlike fine wine, don’t get better with age.

OPINION

And that’s especially true of HB 3796, a bill that would weaken FOIA, the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

It was a bad idea when it breezed through the Illinois House and Senate in May with little explanation or debate.

So a coalition that included the Better Government Association and the Illinois Attorney General’s office asked Gov. Quinn to veto the measure, which he did in June.

But here we are, on the eve of the fall veto session in Springfield, and there’s a movement afoot to override the governor’s veto, which means it’s time to redouble our opposition so that doesn’t happen because it’s still a bad idea.

The bill would give government agencies more time to respond to comprehensive FOIA requests from everyday citizens, and — this is the deal breaker — charge them up to $100 per request, which effectively prices low income people out of the public records market.

That’s patently unfair — they’re entitled to the public documents that explain how their tax dollars are being spent and the key policy decisions that affect their lives are being made — so the bill deserves to remain comfortably interred in the cemetery of ill-advised legislation.

Even proponents of the measure acknowledge its shortcomings.

During the Illinois Municipal League’s annual conference in September, Brian Day, who led the league’s legal team in getting the bill passed, admitted the legislation wouldn’t accomplish its objectives because its language is confusing and riddled with loopholes.

“This was not a well-written statute,” Day told a ballroom filled with municipal officials during the first day of the conference. “It would have been nice to have this, but it’s flawed.”

The passage of the bill was also flawed from a good government standpoint.

It sailed through both legislative chambers in just six days, which is not enough time for a thorough vetting of its content, objectives and potential consequences.

That’s what public hearings and due diligence are for.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan said the bill is also unnecessary. Her letter urging a Quinn veto pointed out that FOIA already includes provisions that give government officials extra time to respond to requests “that would significantly burden its operations” or submissions from serial FOIA filers.

In addition, her office has a public access team that serves as the state’s official FOIA “referee,” so government agencies with questions about how to negotiate FOIA disputes can utilize that service, like hundreds of citizens and journalists do every year when their requests are thwarted.

The government agencies that backed HB3796 view FOIA as a nuisance, or a distraction from the “real” work they have to do, but let’s remind them the “real” work is to serve the public, and that includes the timely and inexpensive release of public information.

So here’s hoping state lawmakers realize a better way to serve their constituents is to step back and take a thoughtful approach to resolving FOIA concerns, instead of voting again for a bad bill that represents a knee-jerk response to political skirmishes inside some municipalities.

FOIA should be sacred. It’s our most effective tool for shining a light on government and holding public officials accountable.

And, like fine wine, it does get better with age when it’s handled with care.

Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.

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