Don't lose this self-government tool

Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 11/15/2010 6:15 PM

A faceoff is taking shape in the fall veto session of the Illinois General Assembly, and the outcome will determine much about who will be in charge of your local government you or the public employee unions.

At issue is House Bill 5154, a predictable follow-up to the legislature's weak-kneed accommodation of the education lobby earlier this year. The ink was barely dry on the state's first significant Freedom of Information law in decades before lawmakers began gutting it by exempting, first, the performance evaluations of teachers and, then, the evaluations of school superintendents from public view. Now, unions are pressuring legislators to add other public employees to the Do Not Hold Accountable list.

Police. Firefighters. City managers. County tax assessors. The job evaluation of every public official in the state will be off limits to public scrutiny. And that is a bad thing for local communities. In any government, especially in a state like Illinois, people need to know which of the employees on their payroll are performing and which are not.

Opponents of disclosure fear two nearly opposite outcomes that supervisors will withhold criticism they think will become public or they will use public scrutiny to punish employees. But both possibilities speak to a flawed evaluation process more than flaws in openness and, beyond that, ignore the fact that supervisors themselves must be evaluated and can hardly be presumed to be effective if they are improperly managing their own personnel.

"The public has a right to know about the performance of employees that their tax dollars are paying for," says Josh Sharp, the director of government relations for the Illinois Press Association, "specifically those union employees that just recently received a guaranteed job through June 30, 2012, despite Illinois' dire financial situation."

Nor is disclosure unusual. In an IPA publication this week, Sharp cites successful rules in Los Angeles and New York, noting that a database of performance evaluations posted by the L.A. Times last August for about 6,000 third- through fifth-grade city schoolteachers, received "more than 230,000 page views the same day it was published." The New York City school system, he adds, plans to release a system rating the performance of more than 12,000 teachers. "How well do Illinois educators stack up? We'll never know," Sharp says. We could soon be in the same position with all other public workers.

Ethics and government in Illinois have reached such a state of disrepute that they are beyond ridicule. Wisely, lawmakers took important strides in the last session to clean things up. They still have far to go, but one of their chief successes was a Freedom of Information law that put the public on the same page as the people we pay to govern. We will watch closely this month to see which of our lawmakers share this commitment to open government. You should, too.