This is Sunshine Week, a week that’s devoted to emphasizing the importance of laws that allow citizens open access to government records and meetings.
Although open access to records and meetings is often considered a media issue, that isn’t the case. For the most recent year where statistics were available, 84 percent of the requests to the Illinois Attorney General Public Access office for open records were made by members of the public. On open meetings, 83 percent of the requests came from the general public. The remainder of the requests came from the news media or governmental bodies trying to clear up a public access issue.
While it’s clear that citizens desire openness in government, many governmental units go out of their way to be as secretive as possible. The Illinois laws allow plenty of exclusions for governments to hide documents or hold closed meetings. Although there are legitimate reasons for no public disclosure – contract talks, personnel issues, etc. – there are always governments that will stretch the limits.
Advancement into the digital age has also caused concerns. The Associated Press, in advance of Sunshine Week, recently asked for appointment calendars and email from government accounts in all 50 states.
It’s not surprising that leaders of the General Assembly were less than forthcoming. The requests produced nothing from House Speaker Michael Madigan, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, Senate President John Cullerton or Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno. While Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on much in Springfield, they can agree on this issue. The response from the Illinois Senate FOIA director, Giovanni Randazzo, said the Senate was not covered by the state’s open records and meeting statues.
A Madigan spokesman said the Democratic leader doesn’t use email and does not use an appointment calendar.
There are some legitimate legal arguments to be made and the AP has appealed the decisions. The General Assembly did exempt itself from many of the open meeting and records laws when they were enacted. The law also has a provision allowing "preliminary drafts" to remain private and the disclosure of emails could hinge on a definition of that term.
However, open government advocates have a stronger argument. They state that the public should know who has access to governmental figures when they are performing their public duties. So, while the public has no need to know if a politician has a doctor’s appointment, the public should be able to find out about a visit from a lobbyist representing physicians.
Let’s remember, these are public representatives on the public payroll.
More openness in government is important to all of us, but should especially be important to the taxpayers whoare paying the bills.