With Madigan leaving office, will public records access suffer?

When a government denies access to records you want to see or closes a meeting you believe should be open to the public, what's your recourse?

In 4,720 instances last year, the next stop was the office of the public access counselor, run by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, where 14 lawyers judge whether public officials are meeting transparency laws and can nudge them to grant access, giving members of the public an alternative to filing suit.

The public access counselor helps makes Illinois' open records and meetings laws stronger, though its future isn't entirely clear as Madigan has declared she won't run for re-election in 2018.

“I certainly enjoy this work and think it's very important,” said Sarah Pratt, longtime head of the office. “At this point, we've really done a lot to establish a strong bureau.”

The annual budget for the bureau's legal staff is slightly less than $1 million this year, according to the state comptroller's website. In 2016, the caseload amounted to roughly 337 requests per lawyer.

Many of the cases arise from government's failure to respond to a written records request within five days, as required by Illinois law, Pratt said. “A lot of those are resolved when we send a letter, but still you can see from the number of requests we get, there's a real need for this type of work.”

The majority of cases worked by the bureau in 2016 originated from ordinary citizens, who made 3,640 requests for review of Freedom of Information Act denials.

Members of the media filed 681 similar requests, and 33 requests were filed by other government bodies. Another 366 complaints of Open Meetings Act violations were reported last year, according to the bureau's annual report.

While that represents a 1 percent drop in the bureau's caseload from 2015, it's a 38.5 percent spike in cases from five years ago when the bureau was in its infancy.

“People know they can come to us for assistance,” said Pratt, adding that increased public knowledge of open meetings and open records laws accounts for the rising caseload.

Not every ruling favors the person seeking access, since the law allows exemptions. But advocates for government transparency say the public access office plays a key role.

“From an overall point of view, (the bureau) has done what it was designed to do, which is give ordinary citizens an outlet to ask for help without hiring a lawyer,” said Don Craven, chief legal counsel for the Illinois Press Association.

There is little in the way of punishment the office can impose on scofflaw agencies, leaving people with little choice but to sue if an agency ignores the public access counselor's ruling. But often, issuing a legal opinion is sufficient.

The bureau also trains public workers responsible for dealing with records requests and ensuring compliance with the Open Meetings Act. In 2016, the number of training sessions dropped to 15 from 30 to 35 in previous years, according to the report.

Pratt blames the state's budget standoff but notes the bureau is getting ready to hold the 30th training session this year.

Maryam Judar, executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst, which helps residents navigate public information quagmires, said the bureau has proved its worth since its inception in 2010.

“Trying to get all these public bodies to comply with these laws can't be easy,” she said.

“They have limited resources and have taken a judicious approach to applying those resources.”

Madigan, finishing her fourth term in office, has opted not to run again. She said the bureau has “made governments more open and transparent” since it was created seven years ago.

“For too many years the people of Illinois had no real recourse when a government entity withheld information or kept them in the dark,” Madigan said. “I created a public access counselor in my office to give people the ability to receive information they are entitled to and shine a light on government.”

With Madigan's pending departure, the future of the bureau isn't as clear as it has been in the past. Legal experts say the efforts of the public access counselor are only as significant as the sitting attorney general wants them to be.

Pratt said she hopes to stay on with the bureau, saying she “doesn't see our work changing at all once we have a new attorney general.”

Craven points to government lobbying groups that help push 10 to 20 bills each year in the state legislature that, if passed, would undermine the Freedom of Information Act and open meetings laws.

“Public bodies are constantly calling FOIA compliance an unfunded mandate,” Judar agreed. “The backlash against FOIA is constant.”

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