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updated: 5/25/2011 2:11 PM

Government prime user of public access law

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  • Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan

      Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan

  • Former Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 Superintendent Gary Catalani

      Former Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 Superintendent Gary Catalani

 
 

When Gary Catalani left his $195,000-a-year Arizona school superintendent's job a few days ago, it probably didn't cause the ruckus it did when he retired from a similar job at Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 in 2006 and began collecting a nearly quarter-million-dollar pension.

That move eventually helped lead to stronger state public-records laws and gave Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office authority to enforce those laws.

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But a year and a half after the stronger open-records laws were enacted, legislators are looking to repeal free access to some information. And government itself has become the chief user of the attorney general's Public Access Office, accounting for 63 percent of the caseload by seeking authorization to deny Freedom of Information requests entirely or in part.

It all started when the former District 200 school board denied an FOI request from Wheaton resident Mark Stern, who wanted a copy of Catalani's contract. Among the perks contained in the contract was free health insurance paid by District 200 taxpayers, even after Catalani took the Scottsdale job.

Stern sued, and the school board spent $62,499 fighting a three-year legal battle it ultimately lost when the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously ordered the district to turn over the contract. The legal saga was often cited when bills to strengthen public-records laws were being pushed by legislators and Lisa Madigan's office. Many of those proposals became law in January 2010.

"I know the case had a lot to do with that," said Stern's attorney Shawn Collins, who fought the district free of charge.

But public officials haven't stopped trying to roll back the Freedom of Information Act.

"It's FOIA in general that's under attack," said Ann Spillane, Madigan's chief of staff. "The majority of proposed provisions would make it harder and more expensive to get public documents."

Last year, Madigan's Public Access Office handled 5,228 cases and 3,278 of those were from government agencies seeking permission to keep information out of the public's hands. There is no data available on how successful they were.

Meanwhile, the office handled 156 media appeals for public records and 1,295 requests for help from regular citizens.

Nevertheless, the Public Access Office, with its 12 lawyers, six support staffers and $1 million payroll, is "money well spent," said Terry Pastika, executive director of the Elmhurst-based Citizens Advocacy Center.

"People need that enforcement capacity," she said. Before, citizens denied access to public records "had two options: Walk away or file a lawsuit."

Government also is seeking other ways to restrict access to public information.

Senate Bill 2203 would double the amount of time governments have to fulfill a public-records request from five days to 10 days. It would reinstate fees that government bodies charge for copies of documents. And it would let local governments discriminate against citizens who make multiple requests over set periods of time.

The legislation is co-sponsored by McHenry Republican Sen. Pamela Althoff as well as two Democratic senators, Edward Maloney and David Koehler. Althoff did not return multiple calls seeking comment about her support of the bill.

The bill also has the backing of the Illinois Municipal League, a local government lobbying outfit that is funded indirectly through tax dollars. The organization complains in its online analysis of the bill that the current FOIA law makes "it too easy for one single person to monopolize ... time and resources."

But Pastika believes the state could do even better with its public-records law by making fewer details exempt from public scrutiny.

"In its current form, I think it's a B-plus," she said. "Illinois was pretty darn close to the bottom before the revision of the statute."

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Got a tip for the suburban tax watchdog? Contact Jake Griffin at jgriffin@dailyherald.com or (847) 427-4602. And follow him online at facebook.com/jakegriffin.dailyherald and twitter.com/#!/DHJakeGriffin.

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