Lawmakers tinker with FOIA law, your right to know
Rockford Register Star (March 15, 2010)
It was less than a year ago that we hailed the passage of a new Freedom of Information Act in Illinois. It took the General Assembly only 12 days to start dismantling it.
Illinois’ FOIA had long been considered one of the weakest in the nation. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and her staff pushed for changes that Madigan said would take “Illinois from the Stone Age in transparency and open government and move it to the modern era.”
The “modern era” didn’t last very long.
Last year, in the wake of the arrest of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, legislators were very reform-minded. They passed a FOIA measure that made it easier for you to get information and to get it faster. It included strict rules for providing records and penalized public bodies that disregard the law.
It limited reasons for withholding information and created a public access counselor with authority to make decisions about FOIA complaints.
Those changes, thankfully, still are in place. However, lawmakers have added exemptions to the kind of information you can get.
You are not allowed to know the evaluations of teachers, administrators and superintendents.
Imagine how upset you would be if your local school board fired your superintendent and didn’t tell you why. It does not have to reveal anything. We believe you should have access to the evaluations of the people who are paid with your tax dollars.
“This is not a dirt-digging expedition,” said Beth Bennett, director of government relations for the Illinois Press Association. Bennett said it’s about job performance. Personal issues would remain exempt and can be redacted.
However, how well teachers, administrators and superintendents perform the duties that taxpayers are footing the bill for should be public information.
Lawmakers want to widen the circle of exemptions. The House voted to keep evaluations of public employees private. The Senate will consider the issue next.
Locally Chuck Jefferson, D-Rockford, and Ron Wait, R-Belvidere, voted to keep you in the dark.
Reps. Dave Winters, R-Shirland, and Jim Sacia, R-Pecatonica, voted no. We hope their Senate counterparts, Dave Syverson, R-Rockford; Brad Burzynski, R-Clare; and Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, vote no also.
Who knows where the lawmakers’ tinkering will end? There were eight bills in the General Assembly that would have weakened what good government groups worked so hard to get passed.
Fortunately, most of those bills never made it out of committee.
We’d like to see lawmakers reverse the damage they’ve done, but at this point we’d be content if they kept their hands off the Freedom of Information Act.