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Illinois FOIA Under Attack (Again)

A coalition of good government and media organizations joined Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan Monday in voicing strong opposition to a recently introduced measure in the Illinois General Assembly that would significantly weaken the state's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The measure, introduced last Tuesday, would expand the ability of a government body to withhold information from the public, and make it harder for citizens to use the legal system when a government body is violating transparency laws.

"At a time when we should all be working to increase transparency and accountability in government, this bill takes us backwards," said Attorney General Lisa Madigan. "This bill would make it significantly more difficult for members of the public to obtain government records, weakening the state's most important transparency law."

Groups opposing the bill include the Better Government Association, Citizen Advocacy Center, Illinois Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), ACLU of Illinois, Illinois Press Association and Illinois Broadcasters Association.

"Lawmakers should be fighting to expand, modernize and strengthen FOIA and make Illinois a model for the rest of the country," says Andy Shaw, CEO and President of the Better Government Association. "Unfortunately, this is moving in the wrong direction and it's important for legislators to get back on the right course."

The measure was introduced on Tuesday by House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie as an amendment to an unrelated bill, Senate Bill 2799. The bill is being heard by the House Executive Committee today.

[Editor's Note: Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), you are Today's Worst Person in Illinois.]

"Transparency in government checks corruption, promotes fiscal responsibility and allows for greater, more meaningful participation in our democratic system," said Abe Scarr, Director of Illinois PIRG. "This bill moves Illinois in the wrong direction and should be rejected."

"Democracy is meaningless without a responsible, informed, and active citizenry. In turn, strong public record request laws are essential to inform of the public of government activity," said Maryam Judar, Executive Director of the Citizen Advocacy Center. "This bill distorts Illinois democracy by limiting people's access to information about their government activity. The House should not allow this provision to pass."

The bill makes three significant changes to the state's Freedom of Information Act:

  • When a government official publicly cites a report or study, the entire report is currently subject to public records requests. Under this bill, only the specific section cited would be open to disclosure. This limits the public's ability to see supporting documentation, methodology, and possibly conflicting findings in a document being cited in government decision making.
  • The bill would allow government bodies to withhold documents that are primarily factual so long as they include at least one recommendation.
  • The bill would significantly curtail a citizen's ability to win legal fees from a government body when they violate FOIA. This would significantly limit the public's ability to hold government bodies accountable when they illegally withhold public documents.

Combined, these changes would significantly limit information accessible to the public and make it easier for government bodies to skirt transparency laws.

This bill is the second of two anti-transparency bills moving in Springfield. Last week, the House voted to overturn Governor Quinn's veto of House Bill 3796, another bill that weakens the Illinois FOIA. Attorney General Madigan and good government groups are urging the Senate to uphold the veto.

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Also:

"The motive behind the proposed change is unknown," Amanda Vinicky reports for Illinois Public Radio.

"It's sponsor, Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, did not return a call seeking information; Currie is a chief lieutenant of House Speaker Michael Madigan."

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"The Illinois FOIA law, while stronger than it used to be, still isn't a model for open government," the Decatur Herald-Review notes.

"There are far too many exemptions and too many ways for governments to keep public records out of the hands of citizens. While many government officials are more than willing to make records open to the public, there are also plenty that seem to believe the public doesn't have any right to know how its money is spent.

"Secrecy is a breeding ground for government corruption, which should be reason enough on its own in Illinois to open up government.

"It's incorrect to assume that public access is solely a media issue - the majority of FOIA requests are filed by private citizens.

"The public deserves access to public records, with as few exemptions as possible."

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Democrats have as supermajority in the General Assembly. If they wanted to be the party of transparency, accountability and reform, they could not only reject these measures but enact a new Freedom of Information Act that actually frees information. Let's stop playing defense and start playing offense.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on December 2, 2014


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