We're amid national Sunshine Week, a celebration not of spring but of open government, at least the principle of open government.
But too often the government that is supposed to be subservient and respectful of the people is just the opposite. When citizens request information of government officials – as a corporate board member would ask for information of a corporate executive – too often they are told to wait or to pay outrageous amounts for the information or that the information requested is unavailable. No corporate executive dependent on a paycheck would do that, but in government it is, unfortunately, the norm.
Illinois has a Freedom of Information Act that purportedly gives citizens the right to obtain public information from state and local government. But the law is full of exemptions and has no enforcement powers. It's as if police had to enforce speed limits without the threat of fines or the loss of a driver's license.
Illinois' Freedom of Information Act is a puny nuisance to government, and nowhere near a guarantee of access to information for citizens.
There are numerous exemptions to the Illinois law, covering everything from some criminal history records to communications between a government and a lawyer, even some records of administrative or law enforcement cases.
Locally, allegiance to the principle of open government is uneven. University of Illinois officials are notoriously uncooperative in acting on freedom of information requests, often denying requests the first time, and often demanding fees for those requests that are approved.
In one example, information related to the UI's South Campus Research Park was turned over by the city of Champaign but not by the UI. In another instance, the two cities quickly submitted information about parking tickets while the UI delayed and deferred until the former president – the president! – stopped the stalling.
Illinois has a Freedom of Information Act in name only. Lawmakers who value the principle of open government by the people should do all they can – and there is much to do – to put some bite into an embarrassingly feeble freedom of information law.