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Thursday, March 24, 2011 06:30 pm

Accountability depends on sunshine laws

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Let’s face it. The government really doesn’t want you, the taxpayer, knowing what it’s doing with your money. It really doesn’t.

In the newspaper business, we deal with it all the time. A police department won’t release an arrest record. A school district fires a superintendent and pays him a six-figure settlement but won’t say how much it is. Public meetings are held without giving notice or are improperly held in closed session. These aren’t occasional problems. It’s all the time. It’s every day.

Just recently, a worker’s compensation hearing for a high-profile case in southern Illinois was rescheduled without notice. An e-mail from an arbitrator to a court reporter revealed the message, “We are going to do it on the sly with no press.”

In a Chicago suburb, a mayor is also the liquor commissioner and owns an insurance company. Is the mayor forcing tavern owners to buy insurance from him in order to renew their licenses? We don’t know; he keeps the documents in a safe in his office and won’t release them.

In Rockford, a school board member has resorted to filing Freedom of Information Act requests to gain information from the school district he was elected to help govern. Sadly, that’s a common occurrence across the state.

Every year, legislation is introduced to try to whittle away at the public’s right to know. Every time an exemption to Illinois’ access laws is passed, that’s one more area where corruption can breed in the dark. How likely is it that the public will learn of such corruption when the information is legally shielded from public disclosure?

Not everyone in government is lurking in the dark. There are many wonderful public officials who are diligent in their roles as keepers of the public trust. These are the people who welcome public scrutiny because they have nothing to hide. These are the people who understand that they work for the public and are accountable to the public.

But there are some real problems out there, too. Serious problems that cost taxpayers millions of dollars each year.

National Sunshine Week is a time to draw attention to access laws and how they benefit the public. It may surprise you to know that in Illinois, citizens file more Freedom of Information requests than the media. While the media tend to carry the torch for access laws, transparency in government isn’t about the media; it’s about you, and your right to know.

To learn more, please visit online at www.sunshineweek.org.

David Porter is director of communications and marketing for the Illinois Press Association and Illinois chair for Sunshine Week.

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