The following open letter was published in the July 12, 2011 Chicago Sun-Times.
Dear Governor Quinn,
The Illinois General Assembly recently passed HB1716, which limits citizen access to government information under the state’s new and improved Freedom of Information Act, a measure you signed into law soon after becoming governor.
The Better Government Association urges you to reject HB1716. And if you do, it will reaffirm your commendable and oft-repeated vow to make Illinois more transparent, accountable and accessible to the people.
In addition, you will be sending a strong and vital message to the many Illinois municipalities and other units of government that support HB1716: Chipping away at FOIA is bad public policy and has to stop.
Instead of trying to limit FOIA, government agencies and municipalities throughout Illinois should be putting their time and energy into transparency efforts that make them more accessible to and candid with the taxpayers who are funding them.
One obvious place to start is to put more basic government information—including personnel and payroll data, contracts, bids and meeting minutes — online and in a format that’s easily available and understandable to the public.
An abundance of government information online means that municipalities and agencies can more easily and cost-efficiently refer many basic FOIA requests to their websites instead of dealing with them individually, which eats up precious staff time and resources. It also means that citizens won’t have to file as many FOIAs because the information is readily available.
HB1716 is not only an overreaction to an eminently soluble problem—it’s another FOIA retreat, which is sad indeed because Illinois took a step forward in 2010, when the new and vastly improved Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) took effect.
That FOIA law increased transparency and open government by requiring each public body to appoint an FOIA officer to handle FOIA requests, ensuring a fast turn-around time for those requests, and expanding the definition of "public record" so the public has access to more information about how our government works.
Since then, the state has been whittling down the scope of the new law.
Last year, lawmakers passed a measure that reduced public access to the job performance evaluations of public officials like teachers and police officers, whose work skills have a profound impact on our children and our safety.
Now, with cries of excessive costs, undue burdens and nettlesome inconvenience, lawmakers want to again limit the ability of citizens to freely access public information and to tag those who pursue the information aggressively and vigorously as public nuisances if they put in too many FOIA requests.
HB1716 allows public bodies to label taxpayers as "recurrent requesters" if they submit more than 50 FOIA requests in one year, 15 in 30 days, or seven in seven days — a label that sticks for a year.
Also, once someone is labeled a "recurrent requestor," there is no set timetable for the public body to follow in providing the information requested.
The lack of a set time frame for replies will leave citizen watchdogs without access to time-sensitive information that’s needed to keep a close watch on what’s behind fast-changing or shifting government decisions or plans.
Limiting taxpayers’ access to information about their government, and deciding that some are more worthy of receiving the information than others, is simply bad policy.
Gov. Quinn: If you are as committed to open and transparent government as you claim, you will reaffirm your support for more open access to public information by rejecting HB1716.
President & CEO
Better Government Association