One of my favorite TV shows in the ’80s was the “People’s Court,” where average citizens argued small cases in front of feisty Judge Joseph Wapner.
The show inspired an entire genre of quasi-real courtroom programs that continue to populate the airwaves today with the likes of Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Mathis and several others.
As for the “People’s Court,” I can still picture emcee Doug Llewelyn advising viewers not to take the law into their own hands.
“You take ’em to court,’ ” he’d say.
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And decades later, that’s our approach at the Better Government Association in disputes with public agencies over the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
Citizens and media outlets typically haggle with government officials over the interpretation of FOIA when their requests are denied. Some adjust their submissions or ask the Illinois Attorney General to step in or simply give up.
We take ’em to court, because we won’t tolerate attempts to abuse or weaken the state’s open records law.
Recently we urged Gov. Pat Quinn to veto a bill that would’ve watered down FOIA — he did, and we’re appreciative — and we regularly file lawsuits when government ignores repeated requests to comply with the law.
Last month, the BGA sued the Illinois High School Association for stonewalling our request for sponsorship contracts and other records, and defending their recalcitrance by claiming that, as a nonprofit, they’re not subject to FOIA.
We reject that argument since the IHSA regulates virtually every aspect of high school sports, which are paid for with tax dollars.
In addition, the association brandished the shield of government protection a few years ago, when it was fighting a defamation lawsuit, by calling itself a “state actor” that’s “owned” and “controlled” by public schools.
The IHSA can’t have it both ways, so our lawsuit argues the public has a right to see how it operates.
Sadly, the association’s secrecy reflects a disturbing trend among nonprofits and other private entities that perform public or quasi-public duties to use their governance structures as an excuse to withhold information about their finances and inner workings.
The nonprofit that runs Navy Pier made the same argument when the BGA sought employment and contract information, so we responded by taking Navy Pier Inc. to court, and that case is pending.
The BGA has also sued Cook County to find out who’s been trying to use clout to wield influence, Chicago Animal Control to obtain a video that might help the public determine whether events surrounding a dog’s death were whitewashed, the Chicago Transit Authority Pension Fund to see what gifts and perks its director has received, and several municipalities that wouldn’t turn over severance agreements, payroll records or cost figures for police training.
We don’t file these suits to get our kicks or stir up dust — in fact, there’s much more at stake than the documents we’re seeking or the revelations the information may lead to.
It’s about the public’s right to know how its government works, which is vital to a healthy democracy.
In 1788, patriot Patrick Henry said, “the liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”
The people who run the IHSA don’t have to read history or the FOIA statute or the BGA lawsuit to understand why they should support the public’s right to know. They can turn to a familiar source — their own website — which includes a mission statement and a set of beliefs espousing the virtues of diversity, sportsmanship, equality and the pursuit of excellence.
“IHSA believes integrity and honesty are non-negotiable,” the mission statement says, and we couldn’t agree more.
The IHSA shouldn’t be flip-flopping over its role as a public entity just to protect its own interests.
Since most of its members are public schools that must comply with FOIA, shouldn’t the IHSA be held to the same standard?
And how can the association claim to have the best interests of public school students at heart when it won’t provide their families with information about how it operates?
We’re hoping the IHSA, Navy Pier and the other public procrastinators eventually realize a big part of serving the public is transparency, not socking taxpayers with big legal bills to resist it.
Our record in these cases is essentially perfect because FOIA law is on our side, so we’re pretty sure Judge Wapner would have banged his gavel and ruled in our favor on any of his episodes.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at email@example.com or 312-386-9097.