Editor's view: Citizens can insist on accountability

By Jeffry CouchMarch 20, 2010 

Democracy and government secrecy just don't mix.

Whether it's a federal agency forcing you to jump through hoops to see public records or a local board avoiding open discussion about an issue that affects you, closed government is bad for democracy.

The News-Democrat, in its news articles and editorials, regularly points out situations that illustrate these truths. You count on us to do that.

You, too, can play a significant role in seeing that your government remains open. Here are five ways you can make a difference:

* Insist that your local elected officials conduct the public's business in public. Don't accept tactics such as meeting privately in small groups to discuss local issues. These tactics are designed to skirt the spirit of the state's Open Meetings Act and enable elected officials to conduct your business in secret. You can learn more about the Open Meetings Act at Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's Web site at foia.ilattorneygeneral.net.

* Take advantage of the public records now available online, provided by governments and third parties, including the News-Democrat. All kinds of information is at your fingertips: salary data-bases, budgets, nursing home inspection reports, state and federal legislation, standardized test scores and more.

These records can help you be better prepared to participate in the business of your community. You can find links to some of this information on our Web site by clicking on our Eye on Government link. We will add other records as we collect more information. You can find other sources of public records by doing online searches.

* Urge your local government to follow the lead of Gov. Pat Quinn's office by posting public records on their Web sites, making them easily accessible to you. You can visit the governor's site -- the Illinois Accountability Project -- at www2.illinois.gov/sunshine. or by clicking on the link at www.bnd.com/eyeongovernment.

* Use the state and federal Freedom of Information Acts when you want to review public records that aren't readily available or when a government agency refuses a verbal request for documents. FOIA laws require governments to respond to requests within certain deadlines (though some agencies seem to use FOIA to delay the release of documents). You can find links to information about FOIA on our Web site.

* Contact the public access counselor in Madigan's office if you need help getting documents in Illinois or have a complaint about an open meetings violation. The counselor, Cara Smith, can be reached at 877-299-3642 or publicaccess@atg.state.il. us. Let us know about open meeting violations as well.

Open government and unfettered access to public information are cornerstones of healthy civic life. To be sure, when we elect people to office, we entrust them with the responsibility to live by those values. But experience shows that some officials need an occasional reminder to do the right thing, be it from their newspaper or from their bosses -- taxpayers like you.

Jeffry Couch, editor and vice president of the News-Democrat, can be reached at jcouch@bnd.com or 239-2551.

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