In a welcome decision, the Illinois attorney general has stripped government officials at all levels of a shield used against public disclosure.
Most citizens believe in open government. Most public officials don't, even though they say they do.
That's why a recent opinion issued by the Illinois attorney general's office is so important. It cuts off a loophole that public officials ranging from city council members all the way to the governor of Illinois have used to escape public scrutiny.
In a Nov. 15 declaration involving the city of Champaign, the attorney general's office ruled that "electronic communications pertaining to public business which are sent from or received by an electronic device owned by a member of a public body, rather than the public body itself, are public records which are subject to disclosure" under the state's Freedom of Information Act.
Under this ruling, public officials will no longer be able to exchange communications about public business using personal communication devices without subjecting those communications to public inspection. Why?
The attorney general's office concluded that what makes public records public is "not determined by where, how or on what device the record was created; but rather whether it was prepared in conducting the affairs of government, and how it was used."
Let no one be naive about the issue of openness and public officials. Many do not like it, and they will use whatever means they can to avoid public scrutiny. In this high-tech age, that often means using personal communications devices, like personal smart phones, to communicate about public business.
Gov. Pat Quinn, who embraced openness before he became the state's chief executive, liked to use his personal Blackberry. But approving that approach, according to the attorney general's opinion, "would allow any public body to completely circumvent the requirements of FOIA by conducting public business on private equipment."
The attorney general's ruling came as the result of an FOIA request made by The News-Gazette to the City of Champaign. It requested communications sent by the mayor and council members both from city-issued and personal cell phones, email addresses and Twitter accounts.
The city complied with the request on city-issued equipment but denied the one related to personal property. Now having been directed by the attorney general to comply in toto, the city has not yet complied and it is unclear if it will appeal the decision to the circuit court.