Information before carrots

September 9, 2013 

Madison County Administrator Joe Parente said he'd like Illinois to replace its stick with a carrot to get counties to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.

The carrot idea is intriguing, but what stick is he talking about? When just 12 of 102 counties get a passing grade in an Illinois Policy Institute check of online transparency -- when the institute believes that 27 of those 102 counties are in violation of the state's FOIA law -- it's pretty clear there is no stick. Counties do whatever they want now because there are no consequences.

Madison County scored an 82 on the survey and St. Clair County barely passed with a 60 (and still came in 12th in the state). Monroe, Clinton, Randolph, Washington and Bond counties all failed the test.

Rare is the county official who, like Clinton County State's Attorney John Hudspeth, looks at a critical report and promises to do better. More common is the reaction of Monroe County Coordinator Linda Lehr, who complained that providing information on the Internet is too great a burden on small counties.

Making information readily available to citizens should be the goal of every county -- not just the information that leaders like St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern think people want, but everything.

Parente is correct that putting information on a website requires a lot less work than the current practice of having employees provide print records for individual FOIA requests. He suggests the carrot be that if a county puts all its records on a website, the county could respond to an FOIA by simply directing a citizen to that site.

The trouble with websites is that information on them can be changed easily with no easy way to detect it. We've seen it happen on government websites. There would have to be a way to verify that a record dated in January was the original and that information wasn't added or deleted in June.

If that hurdle can be cleared, then serve up the carrots.

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