Tuesday, May 10, 2011

ICPR Blog: Moving and Improving

Our blog has been based here for several years, and many people have subscribed to it. We've been wanting to better integrate the blog into our website, and making that happen is nearly done.

Building the blog into the site will make it easier to move between the site and the blog, making the blog more visible to ICPR website visitors and the website more visible to blog visitors. We're very excited about the improvements.

The new blog site is here: It won't look much different, but it will be far more functional.

The one bad thing about moving the blog to the website is that RSS subscribers will need to resubscribe. The new RSS subscription is here. If you've been a subscriber, you'll need to update your subscription in order to get notices of new, informative blog posts. So don't delay, do it today.

And if you're not a subscriber, you'll find that the blog is just as wonderful as it's always been.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Lawmakers looking at ways to make Illinois government a little less open

Two years ago, lawmakers in Springfield passed a law designed to bring more sunshine into government.

But now that those much-lauded changes took effect, legislators are thinking about pulling down the blinds by supporting bills to knock out some of that light.

This year, Democrats and Republicans in both chambers have introduced bills to change -- or in many cases, completely gut -- the state’s open records law, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

This law guarantees Illinoisans access to public records, so that they can be informed about their government and shine a light on waste and corruption.

Although the FOIA has been in place for decades, it was revised in 2009 with the goal of increasing compliance with the law to ensure requestors gain access records in a timely fashion.

But just a little more than a year after those changes took effect, lawmakers are mulling plans to undo their good work and greatly reduce your ability to access public records.

We’ve already outlined our opposition to House Bill 340, but there’s an equally terrifying plan pending in the Senate.

Senate Bill 2203, if enacted, would significantly hinder Illinoisans' ability to obtain government records. This plan sponsored by Sens. Ed Maloney, David Koehler and Pam Althoff would:

-- Allow public bodies to charge requestors for the time and resources spent searching, retrieving and copying public records, at a rate of up to $25 hour. (That equates to a $52,000 annual salary!) The law currently only allows public bodies to charge requestors for the material costs of reproducing files, like per-page copying fees.

-- Limit how much information individuals could expect to access in a timely fashion. SB 2203 would allow public bodies to label FOIA requests as “vexatious” if the individual seeking records had sought to access a mere 5 records within a week, or if they sought a document which was $1,500 pages or more. Once labeled “vexatious” – as in harassing – the request would go to the back of the line, and public bodies would be free to take an unlimited amount of time to fork over the public document.

-- Exempt more information from public scrutiny, including information about law and administrative enforcement investigations and information about public sector job applicants.

We urge you to contact your lawmakers and encourage them to oppose any bills that would weaken the Freedom of Information Act and put the public in the dark about its government.

(ICPR has a tool to help you communicate with your lawmakers, even if you don't know their names or contact information. It's simple! Visit Legislator Letter program, then enter your address, select an issue you wish to write about and hit send!)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

ICPR Applauds Federal Pay-to-Play Rules

In 2008, Illinois was struggling to enact new rules on giving state contracts to campaign contributors.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich had raised millions of dollars for his campaign from donors who later got state contracts. Many of these were based out of state, had never given to Illinois candidates previously, and have not given to Illinois candidates since. A bill to ban this type of pay-to-play practice, and to require disclosure of campaign donations from contractors and bidders, was introduced. Every member of the Illinois House voted for the bill, and 48 of the 59 sitting state Senators sponsored the bill. Yet it was a struggle to enact the new law because Senate President Emil Jones did not want to embarrass his close ally, Gov. Blagojevich.

Jones' stranglehold on the bill was broken by then-US Sen. Barack Obama, who publicly called for his former colleague in the state Senate to hold a vote on the bill. Now, US President Obama is proposing similar disclosure rules for federal procurement. The Obama administration is circulating a draft Executive Order that would require companies bidding on contracts to disclose campaign contributions and independent expenditures that effect federal elections.

ICPR applauds this action. The federal context is different from Illinois', but many of the same problems persist. If contractors are also taking steps to benefit particular candidates, the public has a right to know if the political help factored in the letting of the contract. Disclosure is the sort of sunshine that can reveal problems or assure the public that there is nothing untoward.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

ICPR calls on House Redistricting Committee to bring more sunshine into remap

ICPR trekked out to Aurora Monday to urge the a House Redistricting Committee to bring more sunshine into the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing state House, Senate and Congressional district borders.

Both the House and the Senate have committed to going above a new law's requirement that each chamber hold four public hearings on the remap. This weekend, the Senate publicly committed to holding two additional meetings on draft maps, in advance of a vote. Although specifics about these meetings -- such as the location and format of the hearings -- haven't been made public, ICPR applauds the Senate for moving to add more transparency into the redistricting process.

At the House hearing at the Illinois Math & Science Academy in Aurora, ICPR urged the House to match the Senate's efforts in this regard. Our testimony follows:

Testimony to the House Redistricting Committee
Illinois Campaign for Political Reform
April 18, 2011

Good afternoon! My name is Whitney Woodward and I represent the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. ICPR is a non-partisan, non-profit, public interest group that researches and advocates for transparency and accountability in government and politics.

For the last 18 months, we have been working to educate the public about redistricting and how it affects government. Much of our work has been to highlight the lack of sunshine and meaningful opportunities for public involvement in the remap process, as well as to advocate that the General Assembly conduct the 2011 redistricting in a more transparent manner.

We are pleased that the House, through this committee, already has committed to going above and beyond the requirement established by SB 3976, a bill signed into law in March which requires each chamber to hold four public hearings on the remap.

In addition, we are happy to note that the House, in addition to the Senate, has increased opportunities for public involvement outside of this hearing process through the creation of mapping workstations and the establishment of informational websites.

However, this committee has yet to commit to the most important transparency component that can be offered to the people of Illinois: The public vetting and editing of draft legislative and Congressional district maps. We echo the call that many of today’s speakers have made about the importance of sharing proposed maps with the public, and I’d like to build on some of those comments.

As we explained during the debate on SB 3976 this past winter, it’s not only the quantity of public hearings, but the quality of those hearings, that matter. While the gathering of public comments can provide valuable guidance to map-drawers, that pre-map input, by itself, does not provide enough sunshine.

As outsiders to the actual mapping process, the public has no idea if or how the information taken by this committee will be weighed against other suggestions and whether residents’ guidance will be incorporated into the final districts. By providing an opportunity for residents to view maps before they’ve been finalized, and by considering their proposed changes in an open forum, this committee can answer these questions.

After completing the scheduled public meetings this committee has planned around the state, concluding with a hearing in the Capitol one week from today, this committee should release draft state House, Senate and Congressional district maps through the committee’s website. The maps should be distributed in a commonly available format, such as a PDF, in addition to a block equivalency file, so that parties with access to mapping software can use those programs to analyze the districts and offer specific changes.

Along with the release of draft districts, the committee should publish tables describing the demographics of proposed districts and explainer text outlining why districts were drawn the way they are. This narrative will help residents understand the often complex reasons behind districts’ shapes and possibly forestall some questions and opposition.

The act of releasing draft maps for public input will send a loud message to Illinois residents that there’s nothing to hide in this remap process and that you’re willing to discuss, defend and adjust your map with your constituents.

We salute the Senate Redistricting Committee’s indication that it will hold two public hearings on draft maps. We ask that the House Redistricting Committee match that chamber by holding two such meetings, several days after the release of a map, at which public comments on draft districts can be gathered and changes made to the final product before a vote.

The General Assembly has more than six weeks before its scheduled adjournment May 31. That gives this body ample time to complete pre-map hearings, release draft maps for public vetting, and then hold additional meetings to consider feedback.

It should come as no surprise to you that, thanks to advances in technology, media coverage and community engagement, the 2011 redistricting cycle will be subject to unprecedented scrutiny. It is in both in the public interest, and your interest, as lawmakers, to proceed with this remap in a meaningfully transparent and accountable way. We applaud the steps the General Assembly has taken in this direction, but will continue to advocate for this outstanding sunshine component we feel is quite valuable.

While it may seem impossible to pass a map that pleases all individuals and interest groups, it is quite possible for you to pass a map that the public has had ample opportunity to study and influence.

ICPR looks forward to working with Majority Leader Currie, this committee and all members of the General Assembly in ensuring that the public is given a meaningful role in this important process.

Thank you.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Plan to rollback open records law advances, but with commitment to negotiate changes

Just a little more than a year since sweeping changes to the Freedom of Information Act -- the state's open records law which is designed to guarantee individuals access to public documents -- took effect, lawmakers are considering a handful of proposals which would roll back parts of this vital law.

One of these proposals, HB 340, was debated in a House judiciary committee this morning. ICPR submitted testimony opposing this proposal. We were joined in our opposition by the Attorney General's office and the Better Government Association, among other organizations.

The proposal advanced out of committee on a 7-3 vote, but because of the substantial opposition to the plan, HB 340 sponsor Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia agreed to hold the bill on second reading so that changes to the bill can be negotiated. Reps. Elaine Nekritz, Dwight Kay and Ann Williams voted against the plan. Reps. Mike Connelly, Naomi Jakobsson, Art Turner, Lou Lang and Chapa LaVia supported the bill, as did Rep. Jil Tracy, who noted that her "yes" vote was given because of the sponsor's offer to negotiate revisions to the plan.

ICPR welcomes the opportunity to discuss ways to narrowly tailor the legislation in a way that will not negatively impact the public's ability to access public records. Below is a copy of ICPR's testimony which was submitted to the committee prior to the vote.

Testimony to the Illinois House Judiciary I Committee on HB 340
Illinois Campaign for Political Reform

The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform is a non-partisan, non-profit, public interest group that advocates for transparency and accountability in Illinois politics and government.

ICPR strongly opposes HB 340 and urges this committee to reject this proposal.

Two years ago, in the wake of the Blagojevich impeachment, ICPR worked with the Attorney General’s office, the Legislature, the news media and other public interest groups to negotiate changes to FOIA with the goal of streamlining the records request process and increasing compliance. Those revisions won overwhelming, bipartisan support from both chambers of the legislature.

ICPR valued that opportunity to analyze the law and debate opportunities for improvement, and we are disappointed that a similar, open model was not used to organize the discussion around this and other pending FOIA bills. The Freedom of Information Act directly impacts the people of Illinois, not just the public bodies who must respond to records requests.

There are many problems with HB 340, and several of them can only be characterized as dangerous.

This proposal would strike at the general public’s right to access information by eliminating the current provision in statute which guarantees requestors can access a token number of black-and-white pages without additional charge. Allowing taxpayers to get 50 pages of printouts without additional cost – because let’s keep in mind that they have already paid for them with their tax dollars – is not an unreasonable burden.

The anecdotal evidence that supporters of HB 340 have identified, of FOIA requestors who may seek to exploit this exemption through separate requests for 50 pages, could be addressed in a narrower way. Eliminating this provision entirely in statute is an exaggerated and inappropriate remedy to a purported problem whose extent has never been documented.

Along the same lines, HB 340 would make an unnecessary change to a provision in the law which currently directs public bodies to provide requested records, when possible in a format requested by the individual. FOIA does not direct public units to convert files to a designated format.

However, HB 340 would give public bodies the sole discretion to determine the electronic format in which they will provide public documents to requestors, provided only that the format is “generally available to the public.” This could render some requested records meaningless. Imagine if a 1,000-page spreadsheet was put into a non-searchable PDF. That format would render the document largely inaccessible and far less useful than the format in which it is normally maintained. Here, too, the problems cited by proponents can be addressed in a much more fitting and narrow way.

The remaining part of the legislation would rework the “commercial purpose” definition.

We objected to the creation of the commercial purpose track in 2009 because we do not think that the requestors' intent should have any bearing on the right of the public to obtain documents. However, in the spirit of compromise and in order to secure passage of other positive provisions, we accepted this language.

HB 340 would greatly broaden the "commercial purpose" language just a little more than a year since the changes took effect.

The unusual deference that this legislation would give public bodies in responding to commercial purpose requests should alarm the members of this committee. This proposal would give public bodies free reign to interrogate they suspect are commercial, even those who have already identified as commercial requestors, as to their intent. What concern is it to a public body what specific purpose the requester will use the sought record for? The bill offers no explanation of why the specific purpose of the request needs to be gathered by the public body – and the interrogation itself will surely intimidate individuals requesting documents that are not exempt from disclosure.

The implicit message of this portion of the legislation is that the purpose of the record requestors’ FOIA would govern the speed in which records are produced. And under this language, a public body could declare a request is commercial and subject the requestor to an endless loop of "clarification" demands before beginning a search for the requested records.

Moreover, HB 340 would greatly expand the statutory definition of a “commercial purpose” in ways that would limit all uses of public documents. Take an organization such as my own: ICPR publishes and makes available to the public an annual report detailing local governments’ use of contract lobbyists. Although the purpose of our report is to shed light on the expenditure of public funds, some lobbyists have pointed to our report as evidence that their rates are reasonable. As such, would a local government dispute that our report is for “academic, scientific, or public research or education,” which remains an exemption, because the report could be used to “further a commercial … enterprise" under the new definition? HB 340 would give local officials the means to stymie our non-profit mission.

Most troubling of all, for a group like ICPR, is that the proposal creates a perpetual obligation on all FOIA requestors -- commercial and non-commercial alike -- to keep public records secret if the public body ever denies access to those records to a commercial requestor. Section 3.1 (d) would levy penalties against anyone who delivered public documents to a commercial entity who used those records without paying the commercial rate. This would apply to documents obtained by commercial and non-commercial requestors alike, and even to documents that were obtained without a formal FOIA request.

This section is over broad, overly punitive and completely contrary to the spirit and intent of FOIA, which is to recognize that records held by a public body belong not to the public body but to the people.

But even though there would be no guarantee that individuals would get access to their requested public records in a timely fashion, a responding public body would be granted sweeping abilities to charge a host of new fees related to fulfilling the request. A public body, under this proposal, could task a staffer making a six-figure salary with responding to requests to charge an artificially inflated rate and, again, to discourage the disclosure of public records.

Even if the retrieval fee calculated wasn’t prohibitive, I question how a public body could consistently and accurately estimate these retrieval cost. Prior to the 2009 changes, per page copying fees varied widely between public bodies. and the requester paid the amount, the public body would be under no obligation to provide those now paid-for documents in a timely manner.

FOIA has never allowed for public bodies to charge for staff time or retrieval costs -- a recognition that taxpayers have already paid for these documents.

Just as we worry about the expansion of the commercial purpose definition, we are concerned about the precedent that would be set with the establishment of these new fees.

Public records are public records regardless of the intent or identity of the requester. The “commercial purpose” language was adopted by the General Assembly to alleviate some of the pressure public bodies may feel when handling multiple FOIA requests, and under the accelerated timeframe established in the revision approved in 2009. Since the revision of the FOIA, there has been no documentation of the purported problems which HB 340 would address. Without that evidence, it's hard to understand what purported problems this bill would remedy, and why it is written so broadly.

The framework proposed by HB 340 is simply unworkable. This committee should reject this bill outright.

If representatives from public bodies feel that there are portions of the statute that need revision or reworking, the Legislature should start fresh, beginning with an open discussion which includes representatives from all interested parties.

Thank you.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Mapmakers as Kingmakers?

Today's State Journal-Register joins a growing chorus of voices calling for complete transparency in the drawing of new legislative and congressional district maps.

The legislative remap road show stopped in Springfield this week, giving the handful of citizens who showed up the chance to voice their concerns about how lawmakers carve up the state to define Illinois House and Senate districts.

…Unfortunately, it appears the participatory part of the process may end with these hearings.
As things stand now, there is no provision for holding additional public hearings once drafts of the new legislative districts have been drawn. That means the witnesses who testified at these hearings won’t get a chance to see if their advice has been taken until after the new map becomes law.

Earlier in the week, the Bloomington Pantagraph pushed Illinoisans to get involveld in the remap process and even try their own hand at mapmaking:

We hope many try their hand at drawing new maps.
A kindergartener could draw a better map than some we’ve seen.
In fact, some have looked like they were drawn by a 5-year-old. Too much emphasis has been placed on protecting incumbents’ districts rather than objectively drawing district boundaries.
Attempts to reform the state’s redistricting process failed last year. So we’re stuck with what we have.
The fact that one party — in this case, the Democrats — has control of the House, Senate and governor’s office doesn’t bode well for an objective, open process.
But cynicism shouldn’t prevent the general public and Republicans from working for a fair map.

And the Peoria Journal Star expressed concern about how mapmakers can be tempted to see themselves as kingmakers:

To be sure, both sides have always tried to draw maps that would be most advantageous to their candidates, with fairness and the best interests of citizens in terms of getting decent choices at the ballot box distant considerations. It's about them and about protecting their majorities, not about you. But now the Dems can pretty much impose whatever map they want to with even less debate than usual. This will be a real test of Gov. Pat Quinn the reformer. The end result will tell Illinoisans quite a bit about him.

Hearings are being held around the state now, and lawmakers will vote in Springfield on the final map. Now is your one chance this decade to speak out on this process.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Ameren and Others Giving to Legislators

One of the improvements to Illinois' election law that took effect at the start of this year is a requirement that political committees disclose large donations throughout the year. This change will help the public better understand how campaign finance may be affecting public policy in real time -- not just at election time.

Before the new law took effect, committees had to report large donations only in the weeks before an election. But that left the public in the dark at other times of the year -- when matters were pending before legislative bodies, county boards or village councils. The public learned of large donations only after important legislation, rules, and ordinances had already been debated. The new law allows a great window of sunshine.

Campaign finance reports filed by sitting legislators and statewide officials show that they have already received over $2 million from wide variety of interest groups in 2011. Top contributors include:

(1) Ameren ($77,000)
(2) Associated Beer Distributors of Illinois/ABDI ($57,500)
(3) IL State Council of Operating Engineers/IUOE ($52,000)
(4) IL Laborers Legislative Committee/Laborers Unions ($48,000)
(5) IL State Medical Society ($44,500)

Ameren's giving stands out, not only because it's heads and shoulders above the rest, but because it's aggressively pursuing a major legislative initiative right now. Ameren, along with Commonwealth Edison (#8 on the list, showing $33,250 in contributions) is seeking a change to the law which would allow them to spend more on infrastructure improvements and pass those costs along to rate payers, while simultaneously curtailing the Commerce Commission's oversight role.

Since the start of the year, Ameren gave half of their donations to leadership, including $15,000 to House Republican Leader Tom Cross ($10K to Cross' own committee and $5K to the House Republican Organization); and $10K each to the Senate Democratic Victory Fund and the Republican State Senate Campaign Committee. They gave another $10K to Sen. Kirk Dillard, who sits on the Senate Energy Committee. Other recipients include Sens. Gary Forby, Mike Noland, and Dale Righter, all of whom also sit on the Senate Energy Committee, and State Rep. (and Chicago Clerk-elect) Susana Mendoza, who sits on the House Public Utilities Committee.

Will Ameren's giving have an effect on public policy? What about the other interest group giving? We'll have to wait and see. But we wouldn't even know to ask without the greater disclosure made possible by the new election law.

To search recent giving to legislators, statewides, Cook County and Chicago officials, please visit the Sunshine Database.