Editorial: Public contracts merit public scrutiny - even on entertainment
Convention centers, show venues and entertainment districts play an important role in enriching the quality of life throughout the suburbs. Public bodies that appreciate and foster that role deserve credit and applause. But that doesn't exempt them from the most fundamental obligations of open government, including providing taxpayers with financial information about them.
For that reason, we -- and we hope all good-government advocates -- have watched with interest as a lawsuit against the village of Rosemont made its way through the courts. The suit, brought by the Better Government Association in 2015, sought financial information from Rosemont about entertainment contracts at venues the village owns. Rosemont authorities attempted to withhold the information, claiming it was exempted from Freedom of Information Act requirements because releasing it would be tantamount to divulging "trade secrets."
It's a philosophical argument that's hard to get off the ground, somehow suggesting that the dealings governments have with entertainment contractors are different from all the many other types of contracts they enter into. The argument we see is simple and more persuasive. The public's money is the public's money, and the public ought to be able to thoroughly monitor how it is spent.
Thankfully, an appellate court agreed in June that that is the foundation of Illinois law on Freedom of Information, and insisted that only the legislature can carve out exceptions. "(The) legislature expressly stated its intent that only State statutes may create additional restrictions on disclosure of information," the appellate court wrote, and the state Supreme Court effectively endorsed that opinion when it refused last week to hear the village's appeal.
This puts to an end any question of whether taxpayers have a right to see what their governments negotiated with entertainers who use publicly-owned venues, what incentives may be given to entertainers or exhibitors, how much rent contractors are charged or any of dozens of other points that may be negotiated in the public's name.
The issue is hardly limited to the village of Rosemont. Among many other municipally owned or operated venues are the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, the Hemmens Center for the Arts in Elgin and the Genesee Theater in Waukegan, not to mention scores of contracts signed by communities operating summer festivals and special celebrations.
All of these are vital projects that help give our communities life and a sense of shared identity. And, they are also public projects that should be -- and now unquestionably are -- open to the scrutiny of anyone who may be interested.