State's FOIA needs more bite

Willful evasions of the public's right to know how their government operates cannot be tolerated.

If all public officials in Illinois recognized their obligation to share information with taxpayers, the General Assembly wouldn't have needed to pass a Freedom of Information Act.

But many of them don't, and they manifest their hostility to disclosure by perceiving the state's FOIA as a law to finesse, not obey. Advised by crafty lawyers, they frequently resist disclosures by delaying the process.

Consider the case of the Rockford school officials who decided that they would not comply with a valid newspaper request for a copy of a letter written by a school principal. In contravention of the law, they denied the request and forced the newspaper to file a costly and time-consuming lawsuit. Knowing they would lose, district officials released the letter just before the judge ruled, allowing them to escape paying the newspaper's legal fees. If the district had really intended to await a judge's ruling, it would have faced paying those fees.

It's time to put a stop to that kind of costly game playing by public and elected officials.

Legislation pending in the Illinois Senate would allow citizens and the news media to recover attorney's fees when they prevail in FOIA disputes that are not resolved by the courts.

The legislation is co-sponsored by Democratic state Sens. Daniel Biss and Andy Manar and Republican Sen. Dale Righter. It was recently approved on a 14-0 vote by the Senate Executive Committee and sent to the Senate floor for action.

As The News-Gazette has stated on many occasions, the public that pays the bills run up by government is entitled to know how its money is being spent. Some may see this as a narrow news media interest, and it is important that news outlets have access to documents that explain the inner workings of government. But private citizens and businesses also are frequent filers of FOIA requests, and their interests also require consideration.

It's just a fact that too many public officials prefer to operate in secrecy. They figure that what the public doesn't know won't hurt them. But it's the public interest that is paramount, not the narrow interests of the our public employees.

This proposed change in the FOIA would serve as an effective roadblock to bad-faith delays in FOIA requests. The full Senate and House should approve it and send it to Gov. Pat Quinn to sign into law.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion
Categories (2):Editorials, Opinions

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