No privacy in public business

No privacy in public business

Can an organization be private when virtually its entire premise is predicated on public resources? The courts will decide.

The Illinois High School Association rubs a lot of people the wrong way, sometimes for good reason and sometimes not.

The not-for-profit entity, which oversees high school sports in Illinois, has a tough job that sometimes puts it at the center of public attention and criticism. But it also goes out of its way to aggravate critics with its high-handed manner, principally the secrecy with which it operates.

The Chicago-based Better Government Association this week took on the Bloomington organization's claimed right to operate without public oversight, filing a lawsuit that argues the association should be subject to Illinois' Freedom of Information Act.

Newspapers have a long history of advocating for open government: Sunshine is a potent disinfectant. Organizations like the high school association detest FOIA because it means more scrutiny.

That's why news outlets, among others, have chafed at the organization's claim that it is a private organization accountable only to its board of directors and volunteer members.

But is it really private when it oversees events involving mostly public schools? Is it really a voluntary organization when there is no viable alternative organization? Is it really entitled to complete privacy when its income is generated by public events involving taxpayer-supported schools.

The organization insists the answer to those questions is "yes," even though the logic is nonexistent.

So good for the Better Government Association for taking on costly litigation to challenge this claim.

Like many organizations, the high school association makes its legal arguments based on convenience.

In this litigation, it will insist it is a private organization. In previous litigation, as noted in the BGA's lawsuit, the high school association has argued it is a public entity whose well-paid Executive Director Marty Hickman is a "public employee."

The latter argument makes the most sense. It's time for the courts to rip the vile veil of autocratic secrecy from this quasi-public body.

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