Public access in the post-Lisa Madigan era
To read Illinois law, you'd think every tax-funded agency in the land is fully on board for government transparency.
"The General Assembly hereby declares that it is the public policy of the State of Illinois that access by all persons to public records promotes the transparency and accountability of public bodies at all levels of government."
That's part of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, and if every government in the state held that philosophy, there would be no need for the public access counselor in the office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
Some government leaders do share that belief, even airing their agency's dirty laundry in the name of transparency. But others don't, and their strategies for denying records requests have become more cunning.
That's where the public access counselor's office comes in, weighing in when governments from park districts to state offices answer record requests from the public with some form of "no." The public access counselor's office has logged more than 18,000 cases in the past five years, sometimes siding with the person making the request and sometimes with the government denying it.
Its key benefit is giving people a place to appeal without having to file suit, an intimidating and costly step for many individuals. Often, a reminder letter from the attorney general's office about the law's requirements or a written legal opinion will pry documents loose and get them in the hands of the person making the request.
Next year, Madigan is stepping down after four terms, potentially leaving the public access counselor's office in flux. Though the office is established by law, it's only as effective as the sitting attorney general wants it to be, as staff writer Jake Griffin noted on Wednesday.
We don't know who will be attorney general after next November. But we want to put in a word now for the public access counselor's office, which has been a boon for many in Illinois. And not just reporters -- 3,640 requests for review of Freedom of Information Act denials last year came from ordinary citizens, compared to 681 from members of the media.
We're believers in the office, but we also see ways to improve it. People often have to wait too long for a ruling, sometimes making the information moot by the time it's received.
And the public access counselor needs some teeth. Nearly all decisions issued by the office are nonbinding, which means governments can ignore them, risking only embarrassment and citizen outrage if their recalcitrance comes to light.
More frequent use by the public access counselor of binding legal opinions and a policy of filing subpoenas to get records when warranted would help eliminate some government agencies' strategy of heel-dragging and create reality out of the Illinois law's words: "It is a fundamental obligation of government to operate openly and provide public records as expediently and efficiently as possible."