Before the Internet, if you wanted to take a look at your town's budget, you drove to the municipal building and looked at a paper copy made available for public use. Before the Internet, you had to look in the white pages for your mayor's phone number -- if you knew the name. Or you had to call the municipal building and leave a message.
Before the Internet, if you wanted to know how much your library spends on books each year, even a reference librarian may not have been able to help you.
But now that virtually every governmental body has its own website, you can find out all of these things with the few clicks of a mouse. Right?
Not so fast.
The Illinois Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization that strives to promote transparent government in a state teeming with corruption, began a transparency audit of 300 units of government in 2010, including 102 of them in the suburbs.
The results on the whole were disturbing.
Of the 102 suburban agencies, 70 posted scores of 60 percent or below on a 100-point scale. And that's a failing grade, according to the institute.
Wednesday's report by Daily Herald staff writer Lenore Adkins lists the institute's 10 categories used for scoring: contact information for elected and administrative officials; meeting information, including board packets and minutes; instructions for Freedom of Information Act requests; salaries and benefits; budgets; financial reports; regular expenditures; union contracts; vendor contracts; and taxes and fees charged.
Some of this information is generally pretty interesting -- big stuff like the details of teacher contracts and benefit packages for city managers. But some is of great interest to a select few. If you own a small asphalt business, you'll want to know the terms of the contract that one of your competitors scored. If you're considering opening a bar in town, you'll want to know what kind of taxes and fees you'll face.
If you're an average joe who wants to be involved in government or wants to know how your tax money is being spent, you will want this sort of information at your fingertips -- or at least to be comforted by the fact that it's there when you need it. And you deserve to have it.
The president of Elgin's Gail Borden Library board said while his website scored a 20.8 he's comfortable with what it provides -- or rather doesn't. That it adheres to the state's minimum standards, and anyone is free to request info through the Freedom of Information Act. The time it would take to post all of that information outweighs the demand for it, he said.
That's not good enough. Transparency isn't necessarily cheap, but it certainly should be a priority -- especially in a state where the populace is so wary of its politicians. Representative democracy is a right that comes at a price from each of us.