Thursday, July 23, 2009

If only we didn't need FOIA

One of the most successful stories of the spring legislative session was the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reform measure, SB 189, now on the governor's desk. The bill will go a long way to rebalancing the interests of the public in getting access to government records. The Northwest Herald recently wrote that Gov. Quinn "should sign the bill now and send a message that his administration is serious about improving public access to government information." We couldn't agree more.

A couple of recent stories show why a stronger FOIA is needed. These same stories also show how units of government can make FOIA a lot less necessary. In one, the Better Government Association announced a lawsuit against the Office of Cook County Board President Todd Stroger to compel production of phone records. In another, a suburban school district stopped making information packets available to the public in advance of board meetings. And while not strictly a third FOIA story, the Trib this morning wrote about a possible Open Meetings Act violation, where a member of a village council privately e-mailed other members about an upcoming vote.

Let's remember that the Freedom of Information Act is not the reason why the public deserves access to government records; it is only the means by which that access is guaranteed. The reason why is because it is our government, and we the public have a right to know what government is doing for us, to us, and in our name. FOIA and the Open Meetings Act are like umbrellas -- you want one when it rains, but you don't look forward to using one every day. Having a stronger FOIA will help people better understand what government is doing, but units of government could make that task even easier by being more open with all of their actions.

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