This year marks the 100th anniversary of the famous line Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis coined for watchdogs defending transparency: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
He meant that you can’t assess what you can’t see. And you can’t see what’s not visible. So you can’t shine a light on government and hold public officials accountable without following the paper trail that records the flow of tax dollars and campaign contributions, the awarding of contracts, the hiring of government workers, and the votes of our elected representatives.
We access the trail by filing Freedom of Information Act requests, which generally produce the necessary documents within a week or two, thanks to the relatively sharp teeth in the Illinois FOIA law.
But sometimes governments balk at our requests and refuse to comply, citing an exemption in the FOIA law. And sometimes they’re on solid ground.
Other times, they’re blowing smoke — saying no for no’s sake in contravention of FOIA — simply because they don’t want to cooperate.
When that happens we can appeal to the Illinois attorney general’s office, but that’s frequently a maddeningly slow bureaucratic misadventure.
So we prefer to send stronger messages with shock value: Lawsuits filed by our pro bono attorneys.
Half the time that shakes the documents out of the trees quickly, as public officials recognize their miscalculations and decide to comply.
Other times they choose to fight, and the cases drag on.
It will be interesting to see what option Cook County’s president, Toni Preckwinkle, pursues in response to a transparency lawsuit the Better Government Association filed against her administration this week.
Many voters saw Preckwinkle’s 2010 election as a breath of fresh air after the stale Strogers: John, overlord of a bloated, inefficient, patronage-laden bureaucracy that epitomized Democratic machine politics; and his son Todd, whose lone term was marked by a painful, tone-deaf ineptitude.
Preckwinkle promised to reform county government, but sometimes she hasn’t walked the walk.
Case in Point: Her pledge to open up the appointment process for the 50-plus boards and commissions that help shape policy and spend county tax dollars.
Selections have historically been made behind closed doors to hide the fact that many of the panels are sinecures of dubious value — soft landing pads for political insiders with generous pay and benefits but little work.
Preckwinkle was going to change that, starting with a web site to accept applications.
But when the BGA filed a FOIA request for the list of applicants, so we could assess their qualifications and connections to see if appointments were based on competence or clout, her administration said no — it would be too intrusive.
They only gave us the names of the appointees, not the rejections.
So much for transparency.
On Tuesday our attorneys filed a lawsuit to force Preckwinkle’s administration to do the right thing and turn over the relevant information.
That’s the only way we can tell if she’s keeping her promise to appoint the best people.
Our job, to paraphrase former President Ronald Reagan’s Cold War line about negotiating missile treaties with the Soviets, is “trust but verify.”
That’s how we approach every politician.
First the sunlight, then the disinfectant.
We’ll tell you how the court fight comes out.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097.