A too-long fight over a freedom of information request is over.
Having already achieved the hat trick in terms of legal defeats, the city of Champaign has reluctantly abandoned its doomed effort to keep secret text messages that council members sent during public meetings.
While announcing that the city will not ask the Illinois Supreme Court to review an appellate court decision ordering the city to turn over the documents, City Attorney Fred Stavins said that there are issues left unresolved by the court ruling and potential problems with the state's Freedom of Information Act.
There most certainly is a big problem with the state's Freedom of Information Act — the unwillingness of public officials to comply with its requirements unless ordered, in many cases repeatedly, to do so.
It's no accident that the city is just now agreeing to turn over documents initially sought in July 2011. Delay is one of the key ingredients public and elected officials employ in their tactic of non-compliance.
City officials insisted the documents sought in this case were private even after being informed by the Illinois attorney general's public access counselor that they were not and then losing a legal case at the trial court level. After losing again before the state appellate court, city officials considered whether to ask the Illinois Supreme Court to hear their appeal — a laughable suggestion considering not just the slam-dunk nature of the case but the volume of such requests the high court receives.
The issue in this case was relatively simple — is the public entitled to see messages council members sent during public meetings if they relate to public, not private, business? Two council members, Tom Bruno and Deb Feinen, wisely turned over their texts, opting out of a pointless legal fight.
City administrators could have avoided this fight. Unfortunately, they're often dragged kicking and screaming to common-sense compliance on freedom of information issues.
Unfortunately, this is a common attitude among our masters at all levels of government. They figure what the public doesn't know won't hurt them, and they want to keep it that way.
The state's FOIA, as weak as it is, represents an effort to pierce that veil of silence and let the public in on the business that the public, through its tax dollars, funds. Unfortunately, the law is just words unless both its intent and language are taken to heart by all the parties.
Through this pointless and protracted delay of a clearly meritorious FOIA request, city officials have shown they'll only comply if they have no other choice.