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Illinois lawmakers introduced hundreds of bills in less than two years that attempted to change Illinois’ keystone transparency law — the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Any change to FOIA has the potential to damage government accountability and transparency. Between 2017 and 2018, 192 bills either amended the FOIA statute, or affected FOIA’s disclosure requirements in some fashion.
FOIA is every resident’s best tool for keeping track of what governments are doing on our behalf. Any Illinois resident can use FOIA to access records like budget documents, government contracts, salaries, and emails. FOIA does allow some things to be kept confidential, such as trade secrets, some personnel information, or sensitive security files related to security systems.
However, the BGA Policy Team generally advocates for as much transparency from our governments as possible and we work to protect FOIA so that it remains a strong tool for residents. We try to track and analyze every attempt at changing FOIA, believing any alterations that could damage government accountability and transparency must be thoroughly justified.
Changes have real effects
One of the 192 bills that could have altered FOIA was HB 984. This proposal would have made police records, recordings, and complaints secret anytime there was a pending criminal case.
The real-life effect of this bill would have been the stifling of tracking and monitoring police misconduct. For instance, Matt Topic, the BGA’s outside counsel, offered the following hypothetical in the Chicago Reader: “Laquan McDonald was killed, so they couldn't charge him with a crime. But if he hadn't been killed and they'd elected to charge him with a crime, we would still be waiting to see that video.”
The BGA Policy Team and other advocates worked to stop this bill from passing.
Another example is that of HB 4932. If that bill had passed, it would have meant that in order to obtain a law enforcement document, a person would have to go to its original source (even if other sources hold and make use of the document). A real problem can arise if the original source no longer has that document in its possession.
Bills like these, and many others, have the potential to make it harder for residents to monitor their governments and make Illinois’ keystone transparency law weaker.
FOIA changes can happen in any committee
Many different committees heard and debated the 192 bills that amended or affected FOIA between 2017 and 2018. Altogether, between the House and the Senate (each bill must be considered by at least one House committee, and one Senate committee), 46 different legislative committees considered a bill that had in it the phrase, “Freedom of Information Act.”
The House Executive Committee considered and debated 19 bills mentioning FOIA, and the Senate Executive Committee considered and debated 25 bills. Those two committees handled most of the legislation that attempted to alter FOIA. However, even the House Agricultural and Conservation Committee and the Senate Government Reform Committee each considered one FOIA bill. There are a whole range of committees debating a number of these bills.
There is not one dedicated committee and set of individuals solely focused on evaluating the benefits and costs of changing FOIA. Because of that, the vetting process for any potential changes to FOIA becomes more difficult. The stakes can be high when considering any change to the law.
“Even minor technical changes to the FOIA statute can create years of litigation to resolve,” says Matt Topic. “The General Assembly should tread very lightly when it tinkers with a statute it has acknowledged to be critical to democracy.”
If one, dedicated, committee in each chamber were required to hold a hearing on FOIA related bills, it would help lawmakers give them the careful consideration they deserve.
For now, citizen watchdogs and good government organizations have to be on guard to make sure Illinois’ keystone transparency law stays as strong as possible.
This story was produced by the Better Government Association, a nonprofit news organization based in Chicago.