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posted: 5/17/2013 12:04 PM

Editorial: Brighter days for open records

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Illinois is one of the top states in the nation for transparency, an advocacy group for open government says.

Or is it? Governments in Illinois turned down so many Freedom of Information Act requests that appeals jumped 22 percent last year.

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Those two points seem at odds, and, to be fair, they are based on different evidence of government openness, or the lack thereof.

The first, by the Sunshine Review, recently assigned Illinois a B+ for transparency along with California, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington (no one got an A.) The Sunshine Review looked at disclosure on state and selected county, municipal and school websites of an array of information about how governments do business and spend taxpayers' money, such as budgets, bills, contract bids, lobbying activity, tax collections, public employee pensions and salaries, and more.

The second item, reported Wednesday by Daily Herald Tax Watchdog Editor Jake Griffin, points out that 3,119 people appealed to the Illinois attorney general's public access office last year after various governments denied their requests for public information. That continues a steady climb from 2005, when the public access office was created and 419 people filed appeals.

We'll take both of those developments as good signs, though they seem to point in different directions.

A spike in FOIA appeals? It means a lot of people didn't get the government information they sought on the first try. But it also points to a growing public expectation that government shouldn't keep secrets, and that citizens needn't take no for an answer.

Lest you think this particular soapbox is self-serving on our part, take a closer look at the attorney general's numbers: While reporters appealed 513 denied requests for information last year, average citizens appealed 2,507.

Our public access laws aren't perfect, but have come a long way since Illinois adopted its first sunshine law in 1984.

The latest revision in 2010 made it harder for officials to deny requests for information and shortened their required response time, among other changes, but lawmakers quickly diluted it by sealing public employees' personnel records so taxpayers can't find out whether government workers are doing a good job.

It's a work in progress, but one that generates revelations every day, such as:

• The $44,125 bill Island Lake taxpayers face after an unsuccessful battle to keep Mayor Charles Amrich off the April ballot.

•The 55 accidents, mostly minor, involving Palatine Township Elementary District 15 buses between Jan. 1, 2012, and March 19, 2013.

•The 200 sick days former Warren Township High School District 121 Superintendent Phil Sobocinski was able to stockpile, costing taxpayers more than $52,000 in extra pension expenses.

Check out http://foia.ilattorneygeneral.net/ for how to file your own information request. And let's hear it for public agencies that are moving into the sunshine.

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