In 1788, revolutionary leader Patrick Henry said: “The liberties of people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”
That basic democratic principle is still important more than 200 years later.
Watchdogs, including the Better Government Association, rely on Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act to obtain most public records, which enables us to shine a light on government and hold officials accountable for the way they spend our tax dollars and make policy decisions that affect our lives.
In short, to investigate the “transactions of our rulers” in a state where those transactions are too often the product of patronage, nepotism, inside deals, and conflicts of interest.
Patrick Henry would probably recognize the latest skirmish in our ongoing fight to make government transparent: We asked the Village of Rosemont—neighbor of O’Hare Airport and home to the Allstate Arena, Stephens Convention Center, and many other publicly owned facilities—for copies of its 2014 rental contracts for entertainment events, including country music superstar Garth Brooks’ concerts.
We wanted to see how Rosemont managed those events, but the village wouldn’t give us the most important details: How much they took in, and what they paid out in incentives to win the contracts.
Rosemont officials hid behind a new village ordinance classifying the information as “secret” and claiming their right, as a “home rule” unit of government, to determine their own FOIA exemptions.
You don’t need to be Patrick Henry to play this forward: One home rule unit after another making the same claim and shutting us out. We’ve already seen city, county and state agencies, and many municipalities, force us into litigation to keep the “liberties of the people” secure.
So, as we’ve done a couple dozen times before when government stonewalls us, we’re asking the courts to make Rosemont comply, and we’re encouraged by Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s binding opinion against the village’s intransigence.
Hopefully Rosemont will see the light, but if history is a guide, this won’t be our last FOIA fight because public officials are increasingly ignoring or denying our requests until they’re faced with a lawsuit. There simply aren’t enough disincentives to convince government that transparency is our right. And the horror stories we hear from hundreds of regular people who take our FOIA training courses every year suggest secrecy has reached epidemic proportions in Illinois.
We’ve also seen FOIA eroded in Springfield by legislators more committed to the convenience of their counterparts in local government than our right to transparency.
FOIA can certainly be improved—we support changes that make the process easier for the public and government—and we’ve encouraged officials to work with us on a balanced reform effort. But we’re reminded of another famous American whose perspective is laced with irony: Former President Richard Nixon, who resigned in the middle of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s:
“When information which properly belongs to the public is systematically withheld by those in power, the people soon become ignorant of their own affairs, distrustful of those who manage them, and eventually incapable of determining their own destinies,” Nixon said.
Maybe that’s the point of this FOIA abuse: Keep power in the hands of the insiders and away from the people.
That’s why we’ll keep fighting for the transparency we deserve with every available weapon.
Patrick Henry and the other patriots who shed their blood and gave their lives to create this great democracy deserve no less.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at email@example.com or 312-386-9097.