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State Rep: Democracy Too Expensive For Illinois

Open government is under attack, at least according to open-government advocates.

At least one piece of legislation in the General Assembly would chip away at the state's recently rewritten Freedom of Information Act, while another would change the long-standing way governments announce how they're spending their money.

Senate Bill 2203 would give governmental bodies a longer period to respond to FOIA requests and allow them to charge more money to produce the requested documents. Currently governments in Illinois have five days to respond to request. The new legislation would double that. Also under the current law any petitioner can get the first 50 pages of a request for free, unless there is a statutory fee already in place. The new plan would eliminate that.

"It would be even, in our opinion, worse than the previous law was. We're opposed to it, and we'd like to see some major changes to it," Josh Sharp, director of governmental relations for the Illinois Press Association.

In addition to lobbying on behalf of the media, the IPA also advocates for open government.

State Sen. Pamela Althoff, R-Crystal Lake, is sponsoring the bill and said concerns about the cost of the FOIA to local taxing bodies is what triggered the legislation.

"There are many stakeholders. I would say it's not just local government, it's park districts, it's the school alliances. I think they were concerned about how they could meet many, of what they considered to be, mandates of the original legislation," she said.

The thinking goes that with government on all levels hurting for money, having employees take time to make copies and handle FOIA requests is a drain on resources.

Althoff said that the plan is to take the ideas in the legislation and combine them with the other FOIA changes into an omnibus bill. But good ideas can lose something in the transition to reality, Sharp said.

"You give local government an inch, they're going to take a mile in terms of dealing with document requests and secrecy issues and things like that," he said. "We really try to narrowly focus our exemptions so they're not abused."

The IPA and others also are critical of a measure that would change how taxing bodies make announcements about the use of public property or tax dollars. Those governmental entities currently have to buy advertisements in local publications.

House Bill 1869 would let those announcements be made on the Internet. Advertisements wouldn't stop running completely in newspapers. Under the measure, governments would have to let people know that the announcement was available on the Internet.

Opponents to the measure say governments are using the pretext of accessibility as a way to save money, while at the same time hurting open government.

Not so, said state Rep. Michael Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, co-sponsor of the legislation.

Tryon used the example of his home county of McHenry. At least 92 percent of the residents there have access to the Internet, while at the same time only 25 percent subscribe to a newspaper, he said.

"It is about the cost, but it is also about getting information to people in the way that people want to receive information," Tryon said.

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NOTE: This is Sunshine Week in America.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on March 16, 2011


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