Lawmakers, here's a bill you really could get behind
Excerpt from an official, top-secret, confidential internal memo I fired off to the bosses this past week:
"This is too late to help us this time around, but I think we should approach a sympathetic state legislator and suggest he/she sponsor a bill to move elections into the 21st century. I understand nothing is easy in Springfield, but who would fight a bill requiring candidates to provide their names, mailing addresses, phone numbers AND email addresses when they file for office — and that all this info be immediately available?"
One of the bosses suggested such legislation might be viewed as a special-interest variety, helpful only to newspapers. Point well taken. On the other hand, though, we're trying to obtain this info so we can email candidate questionnaires to the scores of candidates running for municipal. school, park, library, fire and township boards. ("Scores" is understated; in the 2011 local election, we had 1,254 candidates on file, from Ghada Abdelhafez-Fahmy, candidate for Villa Park library board, to Scott Zellmann of Lindenhurst, who ran for a seat on the Milburn Elementary District 24 board.)
We intend to publish all the responses online and as many as will fit in the print editions. Frankly, it may be the only information we'll provide on candidates for some of the smaller, more obscure governments. And lest you doubt we have a surfeit of government in our midst, see my Dec. 9 rave-out about Illinois' penchant for creating more governments than the rest of the nation: 6,968 by one estimate, topping the runner-up state by 2,000 units.
I received a call Friday indicating the citizenry, not just newspapers, cares about this stuff. Suzanne Hlotke, a local community activist, was mad as heck at the village of Carol Stream because she was told to fill out a Freedom of Information Act request before she'd be able to look at candidate petitions for village board. The delay, she said, amounts to "transparency at its worst." She plans to contact the county election commission and Better Government Association as well as voice her displeasure at the Carol Stream Listening Post Monday night.
Candidates who file for local office are required to provide only a postal mailing address. There was a time when this was no obstacle; we'd snail mail our questionnaires to all the candidates, and members of our staff would type the written replies into our computer system. An incredibly old-fashioned, time-consuming, labor-intensive and not very practical way to do business in this digital age.
I should hasten to add the majority of local government staffers are helpful in getting us the info we need. Among several examples staffers sent me, this one stands out: Elgin City Clerk Kim Dewis sent us the list of 23 candidates who had filed for city council 13 minutes after filing ended at 5 p.m. Dec. 26. The list included names, postal addresses, phone numbers and email addresses for every one of them.
In contrast, days after the election, we were still having trouble securing candidates' names from some governments. Some of this I attribute to key people being absent during the holidays. One official told us of nervousness about giving out candidate info because another official was lawsuit-happy.
So, I make this plea to any legislator giving this column a glance: How about sponsoring a bill requiring each candidate to list an email address on his or her nominating petition? And that government fork over the information the minute filing closes. Yes, it'll be a huge convenience for the Daily Herald and other newspapers trying to educate the public about the people running for public office.
But isn't that in everyone's interest?
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