Does state law need to be changed to push governments to be more transparent?

News-DemocratSeptember 7, 2013 

Legislation is needed to provide more incentive for municipalities to follow laws promoting government transparency, according to a nonprofit group and a local county administrator.

The issue stems from a recent report from the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonprofit group based in Springfield and Chicago. Officials with the Institute believe their audit of the 102 counties in Illinois found 27 counties in violation of the state's Freedom of Information Act and 12 counties in violation of the state's Open Meetings Act.

The state's top law enforcement officials within the Illinois Attorney General's Office have been reluctant in the past to compel local governments to comply with the so-called Sunshine laws, according to Brian Costin with the Institute. Generally, the laws require making information about local governance available to the public.

"We have found the (attorneys with the Attorney General's Office) basically think of themselves as an education arm. I'm not sure if it is because of a lack resources or initiative to do something about it," Costin said. "It is definitely a concern anytime you see local governments not reporting what is required by state law.

"Perhaps state law needs to be changed to include penalties, perhaps withholding local revenue share. There needs to be some kind of financial consequences to not posting required data online because we see so many local governments not following Sunshine laws."

The Institute's report ranked the online transparency of county governments in the state. For example, counties with websites and full-time staff are required to post online the agendas of upcoming county board meetings.

Natalie Bauer, spokeswoman for the Illinois Attorney General's Office, said the office is reviewing the Institute's report and trying to help counties meet the expectations of state law.

"Generally speaking, the attorney general (Lisa Madigan) is a proponent of posting as much information online as possible," Bauer said. "Certainly anytime we can increase government transparency online we are for it. In terms of this particular report, we are actively working on reaching out to county governments right now to make sure they are in compliance."

The lowest scoring category throughout the state was posting public employee compensation, Costin said. If a county has a website, state law requires the online publication of the compensation of employees earning $75,000 annually.

"It's ironic because it is the most demanded piece of information," Costin said. "It is very relatable to the average person. They might not understand million-dollar budgets but they understand very clearly employee compensation. It is really the largest cost area, and one of the biggest public debates going on right now with salaries, benefits, pensions, etc. Without that information you can't make the argument that public employees are underpaid or overpaid. How are we going to address one of the biggest issues of our time without access to that information?"

Madison County Administrator Joe Parente suggested a change in state's Freedom of Information Act that utilized the carrot instead of the stick.

Parente said he believed local governments would post more information online if municipalities could fulfill FOIA requests without producing hard copies of information already available on their website.

"We'd like to see state law changed to if the information is available on a website, then we can point the requester towards the website instead of devoting time and money to producing the records," Parente said. "There's been some legislation to do that but it's something we'd like to see. I think it would encourage more governments to put information on their website if they realize the benefit of not spending time and resources complying with FOIA requests."

Clinton County State's Attorney John Hudspeth supported Parente's suggestion. He said Clinton County's three-person clerical staffers were happy to answer 116 requests under the Freedom of Information Act since 2011.

"It makes sense," Hudspeth said. "For example, let's say we posted county audits and budgets to the website. It would sure be nice not to have to reproduce that in print and mail 150 pages that ends up costing us money when it is otherwise made available."

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at or 618-239-2501.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at or 618-239-2501.

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