Editorial: Get serious about cleaning up government
If the actions of its impeached former governor weren’t enough proof that Illinois needs serious reform in its Freedom of Information Act, perhaps a look at another state’s approach to open government will help.
First, a little background: On Feb. 24, Springfield Park District executive director Michael Stratton was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving charges after an accident at the interchange of Interstate 55 and Route 29. The State Journal-Register sought information on the accident from the Illinois State Police, who handled the accident.
What we got, after waiting for a week, was a two-page synopsis of the accident that did not indicate whether Stratton consented to a breath test or performed field sobriety tests. Nor did it contain any information about Stratton’s blood alcohol content at the time of the wreck.
Releasing such information, state police said, would obstruct the investigation and, possibly, a subsequent court case. But even after the case was closed, the blood alcohol content of a driver would not be released due to privacy concerns, the ISP said. The ISP charged $5 for the two-page summary.
So those of us who pay the salary of the head of the Springfield Park District — one of the most visible public bodies in this community — aren’t entitled to know anything but the barest facts about this accident.
Meanwhile, we tried our luck with a somewhat similar case in Washington state, where the King County assessor had been arrested on suspicion of drunken driving after a traffic accident on an interstate highway on Jan. 18. Within half an hour of our request, the Washington State Patrol e-mailed 71 pages of documents related to the accident, including blood test results on the assessor (.22 percent), witness statements, a log of witnesses a police investigator interviewed and statements by state troopers about their observations at the scene.
The Washington State Patrol public records coordinator said we could have photos of the accident scene, but they’d have to be mailed on a CD because they were too big to e-mail.
This, we believe, is a classic example of how some Illinois public bodies have come to view public documents as off-limits to the public short of a court order that demands their release. Clearly, this is not standard procedure across the country, and it shouldn’t be so in Illinois.
Under a bill now before the Illinois House, a public access counselor with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office — not the agency of whom information is requested — would decide what constitutes public information. Another bill that substantially rewrites and reinforces the Illinois Freedom of Information Act would close loopholes for withholding public information while protecting government employees from prosecution in cases where a supervisor orders the unlawful withholding of public information.
As Gov. Pat Quinn noted in his budget address Wednesday, sunshine is the best disinfectant when it comes to cleaning up government. If the General Assembly is serious about reforming Illinois government (not to mention this state’s image), it will pass these two important bills.
On the Web:
House Bill 4165 would create a public access counselor in the Attorney General’s Office.
House Bill 1370 would significantly rewrite and strengthen the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.