Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Protecting Freedom

Let's start from the notion that it's our government. We vote, we pay the freight; whatever government does, it does in our name. Government should answer to us. That, in a nutshell, is why we have a right to see most government records.

Just last year, the General Assembly took up a mammoth re-write of the Freedom of Information Act. While government records are, by and large, public records, FOIA sets the terms by which we can get access to those records, even when government employees don't want to give them to us.

Last year's FOIA re-write stripped away years of exclusions, road blocks, and other barnacles that had formed on the law, all of which had contributed to a culture that too-often turned FOIA on its head.

The new FOIA law, signed last summer and effective since January 1 of this year, is now what's on the books. Read it. It's a good law.

But already there are efforts to start rebuilding those road blocks, exclusions, and barnacles. It can be hard enough to win reform. ICPR has been negotiating reform laws since the 1998 Gift Ban Act, and many times, we've been told to wait while a new law took hold before asking for more in that area. So it's galling to see measures to unravel parts of the new FOIA so soon after the new FOIA took effect.

Take HB 5154, for instance. This measure, which passed the House last week, amends the Personnel Record Review Act to say that employee evaluations may not be released under FOIA. Last year's FOIA bill negotiations very carefully considered what employee records should be covered. The "personnel file" exemption was one of the most abused under the old FOIA and how that provision should be rewritten was the subject of much deliberation. Now, less than a year after those talks, and barely three months after the new law took effect, the House has passed a measure to carve out an exception to that new law.

HB 5154 is troubling on its own, but it is hardly the only bill to create additional opportunities to deny FOIA requests. SB 315 makes it illegal to disclose public school teacher, administrator, or superintendent evaluations, to anyone under any circumstances. SB 315 is now better known as Public Act 96-861; it was passed by the General Assembly in January and signed by the governor two days later. And several other proposals to exempt public records from public access are still pending.

We understand that no law is forever. But we're surprised that the steady drip-drip-drip of changes is so quickly becoming a torrent. We urge the General Assembly to take pride in the system they created last year, and to let it take flight before picking it apart.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Another model of economic disclosure

The Daily Herald has posted the questionnaire that the Democratic State Central Committee is using to vet potential nominees for the state's governor-in-waiting. It spans 45 questions.

Some of these questions are plainly there to address problems with the last nominee, Scott Lee Cohen, such as Question 14: "have you ever been accused of domestic violence?," and Question 16: "are you currently taking … performance enhancing substances?"

We're struck by how much more thorough this form is than the current Statement of Economic Interest. The Democratic State Central Committee is, of course, not a state agency, and is entitled to ask whatever questions they want of people seeking their nomination. But many of these questions are the same sort of thing that voters might want to know of all candidates, and the Statement of Economic Interest, which is the main tool for identifying potential conflicts of interest, is not nearly as thorough as this questionnaire is.

The SEI is only 8 questions and they are riddled with qualifiers, allowing most people who file the form to answer "No" or "Does not apply" to all of the questions. ICPR has found in previous reports that people who answer "No" or "Does not apply" on the state form often reveal more information when filling out the federal form (all candidates for federal office must fill out the federal form).

For instance, the first three questions on the SEI probe the filers' personal economic holdings. The first asks about ownership in "any entity doing business in the State of Illinois." The location ("in the state of Illinois") immediately limits answers, as do the following qualifiers: the ownership interest is over $5,000, or dividends exceed $1,200 during the previous calendar year. The second question asks about any professional organization in which the filer was an officer or partner and from which they earned more than $1,200, and the third question asks about professional services rendered by the filer that generated more than $5,000 in income.

By contrast, the Democratic State Central Committee questionnaire has more questions about personal finances, and these questions have fewer exclusions. One asks, "Please provide the names of any businesses, firms, partnerships, or holding companies which you own/owned or have/had an ownership interest in." Notice it has no exclusions for location or earnings, nor are there any time constraints. Another asks, "Do you own any real estate (commercial, residential, agricultural, or industrial)..." without income qualifications, and specifically asks for addresses "in Illinois, other states or foreign countries."

We don’t mean to say that the Democratic State Central Committee's questionnaire should be the new SEI. But we have long criticized the SEI for failing to capture all of the useful information that the public needs in order to identify conflicts of interest. In the past we have cited the federal Personal Financial Disclosure form as Exhibit A of how to write a better questionnaire, and now we can label this questionnaire as Exhibit B.

The Daily Herald did not indicate whether potential Lt. Gov. nominees were also being asked to fill out Illinois' Statement of Economic Interest. (If nominated, they will have to do so by state law.) ICPR believes that the SEI needs to be improved, and this questionnaire suggests good ways of doing so.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Lobbyist Registration Begins Today

It's extraordinarily late for the start of lobbyist registration, but this is an extraordinary year. Litigation over the stark increase in the cost of non-profit lobbyist registration is on-going, but we commend the Secretary of State for taking registrations from lobbyists while the details are worked out. Soon, the general public will once again be able to determine who has hired lobbyists, which lobbyists are advocating on whose behalf, and which issues they are concerned with. Knowing who is being paid to petition government is a fundamental public right, and we are glad that Illinois re-joins the other 49 states in making this information available.

There remain open issues. What the lobbyist fee will be has yet to be determined. Many states charge no fee at all; others charge no more than $150, and no one charges even half of the fee set by Illinois statute, $1,000. A federal judge ruled that $1,000 is egregious and unenforceable, but by itself that ruling does not determine the new fee. Nor has the Secretary of State announced how lobbyists are to file "weekly" reports of expenditures. Are they to be filed on Friday for that week, or for the preceding week? And how to reconcile weekly reporting with another statutory provision assuring public officials of a 30-day window to review lobbyist reports for errors, prior to public dissemination? We understand that talks are on-going and that a trailer bill may pop by the end of session.

In the meantime, lobbyists (including ICPR) will be registering with the Secretary of State. And the public can begin to learn who's lobbying on what issues.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Picking a Back-up

More than a month after the primary election, and it's still not over. The Republican gubernatorial primary seems to be approaching the finish line -- votes will be counted and certified, and there will or will not be a recount -- and the outcome will be clear soon enough. On the Democratic side, who, if anyone, will run with sitting Gov. Pat Quinn seems completely up in the air. Since the Greens are all sewn up, and the Republicans are well on their way, let's take a look at the Democratic process.

When a flurry of post-election bad news led Scott Lee Cohen to decline the nomination after winning the primary, state law made clear the process for Democrats to name a replacement: the State Central Committee should meet and declare a candidate. That's the process whenever a nominee withdraws, whether it's months or, as in this case, mere days after the primary.

The State Central Committee is now holding an open casting call to pick a replacement. Applicants are invited to post their resumes, references, and recommendations on the Illinois Democratic Party website. But the Committee is not bound to pick from among the applicants on the website, or even to pick anyone; it's possible the slot will remain vacant. In the meantime, people who play along have had their personal contact and biographical information, including birthdates, home addresses, and cell phone numbers, posted unfiltered for all the world to see -- not a terribly sensitive way to treat presumably sincere applicants.

Many have called on the Committee to pick state Rep. Art Turner, who placed second in the primary (and who, for what it's worth, has not yet applied through the website). We have nothing against Rep. Turner, and have worked with him on several legislative matters. But it is not clear that Turner would have won had Cohen not been in the race. It's not even clear that most Democrats were happy with Cohen's victory (after all, most voters voted for someone else). If Illinois used a run-off system, requiring a majority of the votes before declaring a winner, there'd be a clear indication of who would have won the voters' votes. But that's not the law these days.

We hope the Democratic State Central Committee will conduct this search with transparency and input from ordinary Democratic voters, and in a manner that respects the dignity of the process as well as the applicants. Choosing nominees of the major parties is a central element in the election process; it should be conducted in a way that gives the voters more confidence that they matter.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Win Win in Chicago?

Governmental ethics in Chicago is a touchy subject. Often, it appears the top rule is simply, don't get caught.

While academics say that Chicago has a strong council/weak mayor system, at least on paper, the practice is that each alderman has his or her own closely-guarded turf, while all of the meaty decisions are made by the Mayor's office. Each alderman controls (or expects to control) all city services with the ward, from garbage pick-up to zoning matters, while the mayor sees the Council as something between a nuisance and a rubber stamp.

The result is a government that routinely produces stories of scandal, corruption, favoritism and waste. With little oversight, problems abound. But a story in today's Sun-Times brings good news: Mayor Daley wants to give the city's Inspector General oversight of Chicago aldermen. And in response, several aldermen want the Council to take oversight of city contracts. Both of these are reasonable and appropriate steps.

It's unfortunate that the usual news coverage of City Hall presents this debate primarily in the context of a power struggle between factions or personalities. There are public policy concerns here, too, and they should be first and foremost. There's not enough oversight in the city as it is. Both the mayor and the Council need people in a position to say, "that's a bad idea, you should rethink that;" people who can really force a reconsideration, even a modification of the original plan.

Checks and balances have not been part of Chicago's political DNA for decades, but it's high time they are. Whatever the personalities, if the city can swap IG oversight of aldermen for Council oversight of contracts, that's good for everybody.